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How law enforcement agencies can offer mental health support for staff members

Strategies employed by Scott County Sheriff’s Office include emphasizing time off and debriefing with a licensed psychologist after serious incidents


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Law enforcement staff are subject to distressing and dangerous incidents on a nearly daily basis. The added criticism on policing in recent years stacked mental stressors on top of regular work pressure.

The National Employee Survey for Law Enforcement (The NES - LE) is an assessment that measures sheriff and police staff's feelings toward their jobs. National results show that 64% report a positive work-life balance, and 65% report positive morale. Abnormal hours and repeated exposure to traumatic events undoubtedly play a role in these results. But promoting time off when it’s necessary and encouraging healthy discussion can go a long way.

Talking with a psychologist can help first responders cope with the traumatic incidents they respond to.
Talking with a psychologist can help first responders cope with the traumatic incidents they respond to. (Getty Images)

Sheriff Luke Hennen recently incorporated new strategies in Scott County, Minnesota. Hennen’s team implemented a wellness program available to deputies, correctional officers, 911 dispatchers, nurses working in the jail, and other support staff who transcribe and hear what deputies see in the field.  

“Everybody in our office is impacted by some trauma, so we really pushed for making a program to be inclusive for all our employees,” Hennen said. “It’s very important because everyone could use the help, but we also want to show employees they are all valued equally.”

The Scott County department hired an outside company, Faul Psychology, to provide free appointments with a licensed psychologist who specializes in law enforcement. The psychologist sets up off-site every six to eight weeks for anyone who chooses to participate. Hennen said they made the program voluntary, but staff members can schedule as many appointments as they’d like.

The county operates its own employee assistance program, but the third-party option relieves some of the fears around talking about mental health directly with an employer and offers a different alternative.

The program is brand new. About half the appointments were filled for the first session, but Hennen said he hopes those numbers will grow as word gets out. Unlike a decade ago, Hennen said it’s encouraging to see veteran employees who have used the mental health resources encourage younger colleagues to do the same.

“When I look back [25 years ago], mental health wouldn't have been anything you talked about, anything you might be even aware of,” he said. “There wasn't a lot of conversation. I look at the employee that shows up today, fresh out of college, they are more aware of themselves. They are more knowledgeable about wellness, so they expect resources and talk about it.”

Scott County also changed the way it offers stress debriefing after very serious incidents like fatal accidents. Before, Hennen said, leaders would simply ask staff members, “Do you need a debrief?” Often the response was, “No, I’m fine.”

Now Scott County will always host a debrief after a notable incident, regardless if an employee says they need it or not. The fire department, dispatchers or anyone connected to the event can come if they choose.

Scott County also does what it can to alleviate regular work stressors. Hennen says he is limited with certain actions since staff are employed by the county. So he tries to help out with the little things, like making sure staff members get time off when they ask for it. He said supervisors are instructed to accommodate employees who need time off because they are struggling.

“We tell them, ‘You take off, and we will pay someone overtime to cover your shift,’” he said.

They also try to be cognizant of burnout, which Hennen says sometimes employees are unaware of. Supervisors will encourage staff to try different assignments and work normal hours for a few years. He said working in the courts may not be too glamorous to street cops, but when they have kids or are taking care of an elderly parent, the different assignment may be better suited for that time in their life. He said they receive compliments from family members about how the department adjusts to encourage work-life balance.

Law enforcement is a challenging profession that takes a toll over time. The dangers and trauma of the job are unavoidable, but acknowledging their existence and providing support to manage work stress can help keep law enforcement employees and those they protect safe.

“Take care of your wellness because there are a lot of challenges coming at you. Be in the driver's seat and control what you can,” Hennen said.

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