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Axon puts family at the heart of its mental health campaign

Axon Aid: Wellness aims to bridge the communication gap between law enforcement personnel and their loved ones


Sponsored by Axon

By Margarita Birnbaum for Police1 BrandFocus

Shortly after Christmas 2014, Jennifer Brown was tasked with redacting footage of the fatal shooting of a police officer investigating a domestic violence incident. Brown had to review the body camera video to edit the images that could not be made public, including the patrolman’s final moments. The memories of that experience still bring her to tears.

Axon launched its Axon Aid: Wellness program, a collection of peer videos and other resources, to help officers and their families deal with the realities of the job and provide tools for better mental health.
Axon launched its Axon Aid: Wellness program, a collection of peer videos and other resources, to help officers and their families deal with the realities of the job and provide tools for better mental health. (Getty)

But Brown, the communications and systems information manager for the Flagstaff Police Department in Arizona, says she shared those memories in a mental health campaign designed to help encourage people who work in law enforcement, including other records custodians, to seek counseling services when they feel their work is overwhelming.

“There needs to be someone always reminding employees and their families that there is help, that we are going through some type of pain” she said. “That allows us to be our best self.”

Those are some of the messages at the heart of Axon Aid: Wellness, the campaign created by Axon Aid, the philanthropic division of Axon. The program features videos and other resources featuring law enforcement professionals sharing their stories in hopes of sparking important conversations in police families across the country.

For the project, the Axon Aid production team has interviewed hundreds of people in the law enforcement community, including public safety personnel and their families, says Isabella Giannini, senior manager of customer loyalty at Axon. They also talked to psychologists familiar with the responsibilities and challenges characteristic to the jobs of patrol officers, detectives and other sworn and civilian staff.

WORRISOME MENTAL HEALTH TRENDS

Law enforcement administrators have been aware of the troubling trends of poor mental health among their sworn and civilian staff. Academic research in the U.S. and other countries has been hinting at that for at least 10 years.

For instance, results from one study of U.S. police officers suggested they were almost twice as likely to live with depression compared with peers in the general population, in part because many don’t get enough sleep, are regularly exposed to violence and deal with unique organizational stressors. Findings from a recent study that looked at the prevalence of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety in a law enforcement agency in Canada, suggested that 26% of the civilian and sworn officers who participated in it were diagnosed with a mental illness.

And that was before the coronavirus pandemic turned the world upside down. Soon after the shelter-in-place orders began across the U.S, public safety agencies flooded Axon Aid with requests to provide mental health resources in addition to the masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment that they were providing to help keep officers and civilian employees safe from the coronavirus, says Giannini.

ANSWERING THE CALL

Within a few months, she and her colleagues started laying the groundwork for Axon Aid: Wellness by reaching out to officers in agencies big and small, rural and urban about their jobs and their attitudes toward mental health screenings and treatment.

They also talked to immediate family members of law enforcement employees to learn how their loved ones’ jobs may affect their personal relationships. In addition, they consulted with law enforcement psychologists and other experts who could share practical, tried-and-true advice to help public safety personnel manage stress, maintain a better work-home balance and nurture meaningful relationships with family and friends.

“It really opened our eyes to a lot of the struggles police face and internalize and take home, and then what that does to their families,” said Giannini. “I think people, including family members, forget that yeah, they’re answering a call to serve, but they are people with different stress coping skills and personal backgrounds.”

UNDERSTANDING THE ISSUES

Understanding the challenges and motivations of LEOs and their families was a key objective while building the program. For example, some law enforcement employees said that even when they knew they needed counseling, they didn’t ask for it because they were afraid that it would negatively impact their careers. Among police officers, the ones who appeared to have more severe symptoms of mental illness were the most resistant to get help.

Many public safety personnel also shared that some of the stress they felt was because they felt misunderstood by their loved ones, especially those who didn’t work in the same field. Meanwhile, family members expressed that their loved ones were withdrawn, irritable and unnecessarily vigilant, among other things.

Giannini says she and the others on the project realized they needed to create a program to help address mental health and that these stories from peers could be powerful tools. The hope is that by listening to the experiences of their peers in law enforcement, as well as advice from experts, law enforcement employees and their families can benefit in multiple ways, including

  • Develop a better understanding of their needs and expectations.
  • Facilitate communication.
  • Learn to navigate rough patches more effectively.

FAMILIES NEED ASSISTANCE, TOO

Because family members play a critical role in supporting their loved ones in good times and bad, Giannini says it’s important that law enforcement agencies encourage counseling and make mental health education resources available to the spouses, children, parents, and even siblings of their employees. Although they are very motivated to help their loved ones, many don’t have the tools to provide the most effective support.

Brown, the Flagstaff systems information manager, agrees and says that although family members play a huge role in supporting law enforcement personnel, a disconnect often exists between public safety professionals and their families, generally because of misunderstandings and lack of open communication.

A family member may try to find ways to connect with and help their loved one, but this often can be too much for that person to handle. This is especially true when the person in law enforcement chooses not to share details of the job or says they are “fine.”

“This often causes a sense of disconnect for both sides, and communication lacks as to what is happening in the world of the family member in law enforcement,” said Brown.

Certainly, she says, law enforcement personnel – from the rank-and-file officer to records custodians to commanding officers – could do a better job of nurturing their relationships at home. Many, she explains, don’t share much about their work because they want to protect their loved ones from the ugliness they see, the frustrations that come with the job and the sadness they feel.

“They chose not to put that burden on the family,” said Brown, “but eventually it becomes a burden for all parties involved and too much to hold in.”

Axon Aid: Wellness aims to help bridge that communication gap between law enforcement personnel and their families by sharing these peer stories. Brown says she hopes others will take comfort in knowing that they aren’t the only ones struggling with mental illnesses and be inspired to seek help. In addition, she wants agencies step up to the plate to support the families of their employees.

“It’s about understanding and being willing to change the culture and mindset of law enforcement,” she said.

For more information, visit Axon Aid: Wellness. If you need help right now, please call suicide prevention at 800-273-8255.

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