5 takeaways from a mental health professional and LEO wife
Law enforcement officers need to be proactive in self-care to ensure they are resilient in the midst of loss and trauma
The elephant in the room in the law enforcement community is officer suicide. For years, the stress of the job has wreaked havoc on our nation’s heroes. High exposure to vicarious trauma and stress has caused officers to retire early and others to live in a heavy cloud of mental darkness.
Thankfully, this problem has come under the spotlight over the past few years, causing police agencies around our country to look for ways to focus on officer mental wellness. Additionally, practitioners in mental health have stepped forward to support law enforcement officers in the healing process.
Seattle native and mental health professional Johanna Wender recently responded to this need. In January, I virtually sat down with Johanna to discuss officer wellness. Johanna has been a counselor in the greater Seattle area for over 10 years, working alongside law enforcement and providing care to trauma victims.
Recently Johanna shifted gears, left public health and started her own practice, providing mental healthcare exclusively to LEOs, other first responders and members of the military. Johanna’s motivation to specialize in the law enforcement family is two-fold: she sees a gap in the available services for LEOs and she is married to an officer. Johanna knows that LEOs are a guarded group and need to be able to trust the professional who is going to walk with them in recovery.
Johanna told me many officers carry around trauma that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to unresolved experiences. Prior to meeting with a new patient, she sends them a questionnaire that asks if the officer has experienced or observed others endure a variety of traumatic events. Johanna’s husband saw the template questionnaire and commented that most veteran officers could check off the entire list. Johanna’s husband laughed, commenting that he never thought of most of these events as being traumatic.
In light of the quantity of traumatic events officers experience, I asked Johanna what LEOs need to know about protecting their mental well-being. This is what she shared.
1. Prioritize your health
Officers have always had a tough job, responding to emergencies and helping people through crises. This past year has made their job even tougher as they face polarizing political pressures.
Johanna told me officers need to return to the basics by taking care of their bodies. LEOs need to prioritize sleep, nutrition and exercise. Officers can start small by increasing their water intake, packing high-nutrition foods in their lunch and going for walks.
Johanna also emphasizes the importance of family. She added that it is common for LEOs to over-identify with the job and neglect the people they love the most. Scheduling time with spouses, children, friends and loved ones is crucial in maintaining mental and emotional health.
Police1 resource: 8 tips for being a successful police family
2. Get ahead of it
Due to the stigma of talking with a counselor, Johanna has seen officers wait until unresolved trauma becomes a bigger issue. LEOs need to get ahead of their stressors before they grow into post-traumatic stress injury.
Mental health is no different than a sports injury. People need to seek medical treatment to heal and rehabilitate their injuries. If they neglect their injury, they could exacerbate the injury and delay the healing process. The same is true for mental health injuries. The sooner these injuries are treated by a competent counselor who specializes in trauma, the quicker the person will heal.
Police1 resource: How to tell if you are depressed and when to get help
3. Find someone you trust
Johanna recognizes that trust is the single greatest factor in a successful counselor-patient relationship. She told me that she approaches her patients in a genuine manner to establish trust. She has also found that her love for and connection to the greater law enforcement family has been key in rapport building.
Johanna pointed out that not all counselors are a good fit. LEOs need to find someone they trust so they will confide in them and be willing to put in the necessary work to heal. Johanna treats trauma using evidence-based practices that require LEOs to put forth effort in the therapy process. If a patient does not trust their therapist, they may not do the work.
Police1 resource: Preparing for a virtual counseling session
4. Not all counselors are the same
Mental health professionals are not all the same. There is a multitude of specialized fields within mental health. Some therapists specialize in family counseling while others focus on addiction. Johanna specializes in treating post-traumatic stress, one of the most common duty-related injuries. When LEOs are seeking mental healthcare, it is important to find someone that is competent in treating your injury. Some Washington State agencies have created lists of LEO supportive counselors. Officers add and remove names based on their experiences with the therapist.
Police1 resource: How does a first responder select the right counselor?
5. Treatment is not forever
Johanna added that mental health treatment, just like physical health treatment, is not permanent. She has heard LEOs express concern that once you start seeing a counselor, you have to see them forever. Johanna told me that this is not true. She explained that in many cases, LEOs suffering from PTSD might visit her for only 10-15 sessions to treat their PTSD. Johanna emphasized that various factors can affect this timeline, like duration of trauma, the onset of symptoms, competency of the mental health provider and the effort put forth by the LEO. However, treatment is not forever. Counselors like Johanna treat PTSD using evidence-based practices that have been proven effective.
Johanna is excited about the future. She cares about law enforcement officers and believes she can make a difference. Due to COVID, she was forced to establish her practice online, using virtual platforms to deliver mental health services. However, this also created an opportunity. She is now available to provide services to LEOs throughout Washington State.
Johanna told me that she has found that some LEOs prefer to sit in the comfort of their own home during their sessions. Additionally, shift work makes it difficult to commute in busy Seattle traffic. Post-COVID, Johanna plans to provide in-office and virtual appointments to local patients. She is committed to taking care of officers and helping them heal so they can continue to care for their communities.
Johanna is a licensed mental health provider in Washington State and accepts most major medical insurance plans. With the use of virtual technologies, she is providing mental health services to law enforcement officers throughout the state. Johanna also provides training and consulting for law enforcement agencies that want to set up mental health and wellness programs for their officers. LEOs from other states can contact their employer Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) to ask about qualified counselors. If LEOs or their families would like to schedule an appointment with Johanna to see if she is a good fit, contact her at 206-715-5230 or visit www.bravuracounseling.com.
OFFICER WELLNESS ACTION ITEMS FROM POLICE1
- Download Police1's eBook on prioritizing mental & emotional health
- Ask these five questions if you are feeling stressed
- Take a free online course on mental health awareness for cops
- Watch this on-demand webinar on how to heal stress-damaged relationships
- Listen to the following Policing Matters podcast on mental wellness in LE: