How to implement annual mental health checks for your officers
If we are going to eliminate the stigma of mental illness within our profession, it starts at the top
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Mental health checks | Reducing stress | Internal situational awareness, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.
Police leaders and line staff often discuss the importance of removing the stigma around mental illness in our profession. As officer suicides continue to increase and officers leave the profession because of PTSD or related symptoms, we must provide our personnel access to mental healthcare resources.
I would like to share the lessons I learned after implementing an annual mandatory mental health check for all my officers, including myself and all civilian staff.
Leading by example
After witnessing officers around the country and locally commit suicide at record rates, I recognized I had to do something to address any issues at my agency. I was willing to endure whatever push back I got from my officers, as leadership is not a popularity contest. I also made sure I was the first to go through the mandatory mental health checkup. I got a lot out of my session; specifically, some mindfulness techniques to help calm me in stressful situations. If we are going to eliminate the stigma of mental illness within our profession, it starts at the top.
Cops often distrust new initiatives, so I took some steps to alleviate potential concerns.
First, I contracted with an external provider working independently from the city. He was also a former police officer, which helped his credibility with my officers.
Second, I had to make sure officers knew sessions were strictly confidential. The provider does not take notes during the session as it is not a psychological examination. The session is just like an annual physical checkup.
The sessions provide officers with stress reduction strategies and, if an officer needs additional assistance, the provider will either accommodate them or refer them to someone else.
If the officer needs additional services, these are also confidential and conducted independently of the department. In either case, the department pays for three of these visits after which services are paid for by the officer’s insurance.
Officer response to mandatory mental health checkups
The main concern officers had was that if they were involved in a shooting or some other type of critical incident, would the information they shared during their annual checkup be subject to a subpoena. The answer is “no.”
Aside from the fact that these sessions are protected under law, the provider wouldn’t have any information to give as they don’t take notes during the session.
The concern about being singled out for seeing a mental health professional was eliminated by having everyone participate.
Fortunately, most officers have been accepting of the program and found it to be beneficial. It also helps that officers are scheduled to attend these sessions while on duty, including the night crew.
If you are looking to set up an annual mental health checkup in your department, I suggest selecting a provider who doesn’t work for the agency or the governing body of the agency. Staff may not feel comfortable speaking with someone who works for the chief and the chief may not feel comfortable speaking with someone who works for them.
Set expectations that these sessions are not psychological screenings. The sessions are simply geared toward providing the officer with stress management tools. Just like physical examinations, if something needs additional examination, it’s better to catch it before it’s not curable.
The stigma of mental illness within our profession is engrained and unless police leaders proactively de-stigmatize it, we will continue to see an increase in officer suicides. I hope this article gives police leaders the courage to start their own mental health checkup program for their officers.