3 ways to improve agency retention by making mental health a priority
Departments and officers alike can benefit from these changes
Sponsored by CentralSquare
By Courtney Levin, Police1 BrandFocus Staff
It’s no secret that working in law enforcement has become increasingly difficult in the last several years. Between the stress of the pandemic and the public’s growing distrust of police officers, people aren’t exactly lining up to join their local PD.
Unfortunately, officers have had it tough for decades. It’s stressful to be thrust into scenarios where your life is in danger. Being routinely exposed to traumatic situations like car accidents, homicides and domestic violence can quickly take a toll on an officer’s mental health.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly 1 in 4 officers have had thoughts of suicide at one point, with those in law enforcement reporting higher rates of PTSD, depression and anxiety than the general public.
Further compounding this issue is the stigma around receiving help for mental health concerns. A 2020 study on the prevalence of mental health struggles among officers at the Dallas Police Department found that 26% of participants screened positive for a mental illness, yet only 17% of those individuals sought out mental health services.
This alone is a significant problem within law enforcement, but now, mental health issues are being exacerbated by a nationwide decline in officer retention.
A study conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum notes that when comparing hiring practices from 2020-21 to 2019-20, agencies experienced a 5% decrease in hiring, an 18% increase in resignation and a 45% increase in retirement.
This leads to a lack of adequate staffing, which often results in officers working longer shifts and taking on more responsibility within their department. This added stress takes a toll on an officer’s mental health, leading to burnout and resignation, and creates a seemingly never-ending cycle.
SUPPORTING YOUR OFFICERS
Agencies struggling with retention frequently turn to new recruiting methods to address staffing issues. However, it’s necessary to realize that keeping your officers is more important than attracting applicants only to have them resign a few years into their careers.
Departments that promote a positive culture around mental health may find that the prevention and treatment of burnout, PTSD and other mental health struggles goes a long way toward both attracting and retaining officers.
Here are three ways your department can make mental health a priority and simultaneously improve officer retention:
1. LEAD BY EXAMPLE
In any profession, leaders need to follow through with the messages they communicate to their team. When it comes to the mental health of law enforcement officers, normalizing mental health issues can truly save an officer’s life.
The acceptance of mental health struggles needs to be modeled from the top down and can be accomplished through a multifaceted approach. First, those in command should be willing to share their own mental health struggles with others in the agency. While this vulnerability can feel scary at first, there’s nothing more powerful to someone dealing with PTSD or depression than to hear that they aren’t alone.
Remember, mental health issues are common within the law enforcement community, and regular discussions to help remove stigmas and normalize these periods of struggle should happen regularly. You don’t need to hold formal meetings to shift the culture of your department, as more informal conversations within your agency can provide the safety needed for officers to open up.
When it’s apparent that your department supports officers in times of need, attracting applicants will become easier. Those already on the force will feel empowered to put their all into their work, knowing that they have others who are looking out for their mental health.
2. TAKE A COLLABORATIVE APPROACH
The ability for officers to speak with those in leadership about their mental health concerns is a huge step toward eliminating any stigmas present in your department. However, those in administration can’t be the only ones available to support officers when they need to talk.
Many departments have implemented peer support groups to encourage conversations about traumatic events or simply talk about feelings of being overwhelmed. As a complement to this peer encouragement, agencies can also establish an employee assistance program. This type of confidential counseling service can provide valuable feedback about mental health concerns from a more neutral perspective.
Officers are sometimes hesitant to share their mental health struggles in a peer setting for fear of being seen as weak. To help eliminate this concern, Congress passed the Confidentiality Opportunities for Peer Support Counseling Act. It ensures that best practices will be established for peer support programs and keeps information shared during these sessions confidential.
No matter what combination of resources your agency uses for mental health support, officers should be encouraged to use these programs as needed. By taking a proactive approach and learning how to cope with stress before it becomes a chronic concern, officers have a better chance of building the resiliency needed to remain on the force.
3. KNOW HOW TO RESPOND TO TRAUMA
Being a police officer is often described as mostly mundane with bursts of extreme stress. In some instances, these stressful situations are traumatic and leave officers in a position of needing ongoing mental help.
While mandatory counseling and peer support can be beneficial after a traumatic event, some officers find that specialized treatment programs provide the assistance they need to be able to return to work. These organizations, like Caron Treatment Centers, can also help with ongoing mental health illnesses.
Officers need to know they aren’t alone when it comes to mental health struggles, as depression, burnout and PTSD are normal given the situations that law enforcement personnel are regularly exposed to.
No officer is exempt from mental health issues, whether they’ve been on the force for two years or 20. Ultimately, it’s up to each agency to put programs in place that will foster a positive attitude toward mental health and assist officers when they need it most.
This article originally appeared in Smash the stigma: Building a culture that supports officer wellness.