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Wellness program offers two-week sabbatical to allow officers to access professional counseling

This initiative by the Berea Police Department seeks to mitigate the personal and professional impacts of job-related stress, potentially reducing turnover and enhancing public safety

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The Berea Police Department’s counseling program is aimed at helping officers manage the stress and challenges inherent to their profession.

Photo/Berea Police Department

In a pioneering move to support the mental well-being of its police force, the Berea (Kentucky) Police Department has announced the introduction of a counseling program aimed at helping officers manage the stress and challenges inherent to their profession.

This initiative seeks to mitigate the personal and professional impacts of job-related stress, potentially reducing turnover and enhancing public safety.

The program allows officers to take two weeks off to engage in counseling, with the goal of preventing any negative impacts of job-related stress. The initiative not only underscores the city’s commitment to its police force’s mental health but also represents a strategic move to curb the financial and social repercussions of high turnover rates.

The initiative has been met with positive feedback from the Berea City Council, with suggestions to extend similar support to the fire department, highlighting the universal need for mental health services among first responders. The program, part of a broader effort to create a supportive and understanding workplace culture, has been praised for its potential to serve as a model for other departments across the state and possibly the nation.

I recently spoke with Berea Police Chief Jason Hays about the program.

How did the wellness plan originate?

The wellness plan was initially developed by two captains in our department who were discussing how we could improve the mental wellness of our officers. Patrol Captain Casey Botkin and Administrative Captain Kenneth Puckett came across an article that detailed how the Paynesville Police Department in Minnesota is giving their members a sabbatical leave of 30 days from work. The premise was that their members would take off for a month, limit communication with the department and other members, and experience a “reset” in which they came back to work refreshed and no longer having “burnout.”

We liked the concept but wanted to incorporate mental health and wellness as well. After having a command staff meeting in which ideas were suggested and pros and cons discussed, we came out of that meeting with the current wellness plan. We then started working on forming partnerships with counseling centers and creating a presentation to share with Berea City Administrator Rose Beverly.

Once we presented the plan to Ms. Beverly, we received immense support from her and Berea Mayor Bruce Fraley. We then worked on a presentation for the Berea City Council and garnered their support as well and began plans for implementation.

As someone who has been in law enforcement for over 23 years, I’ve seen the effects of critical incidents that officers experience over their career. Many of us suffer from some form of PTSD from our experiences, and many others experience burnout, depression, and other mental health-related problems. Our agency has developed a Peer Support policy and team, but we felt we needed to do more to support our members’ wellness.

What are the goals of the wellness plan?

We hope to provide resources that aid in the identification of mental health conditions and provide treatment and coping strategies for members to improve their emotional, psychological, and social well-being. We also hope to minimize the effects of burnout in our members with the wellness time off and the requirements associated with that benefit.

A goal we also hope to accomplish through the program is the recruitment and retention of members, with the main focus being retention. Our hope is that members will learn to identify sources or triggers that result in emotional responses and understand what tools are available to improve their mental health.

What are the stipulations for participating in the wellness program?

Program participation is optional, with stipulations. Members will be given the choice to participate in this program. If they choose to participate, then they must see a counselor during their two weeks off. If members do not wish to see a counselor, they will not qualify for the time off related to this program. To be eligible to participate in the program, members must have earned a wellness milestone.

How are wellness milestones determined for members?

Members receive a wellness milestone for every 3 years of service with our agency. For example, an officer hired in June of 2023 would be eligible to participate in the program in 2026, 2029, and so on. For the 3rd year, 6th year, 9th year, 12th year and 15th year of service, members will be eligible for 2 weeks of wellness time off. For the 18th year of service and every 3 years beyond, members will be eligible for 3 weeks of wellness time off. Wellness time off is not associated with members’ holiday, vacation, personal, or sick time, and is an added benefit.

What are the counseling session requirements for members participating in the program?

Members who choose to participate in the program must schedule and attend at least two counseling sessions during the allotted time off with a department approved counselor. Our department has formed a partnership with Danville Counseling Center through its “Mend the Line” program; however, other counselors would be considered if a member has other preferences. The department will pay the cost for the first two counseling sessions. If additional sessions are required for the officer, they must schedule those sessions on their own and either pay through insurance or out of pocket.

How are members notified and scheduled for their wellness time off?

All members who are eligible for their milestone for the calendar year will be notified by December the prior year. Scheduling and plans will be made early in the year to account for time off, training and shift shortages.

Under what circumstances can the wellness plan be activated on an emergency basis?

In the event a member needs the services of the wellness plan prior to reaching a wellness milestone, we may approve the activation of the wellness plan for that member proactively. Events such as critical incidents or a culmination of several critical incidents that members are involved in could trigger an emergency activation of the plan.

What is the estimated annual cost to the department for implementing this program?

It is estimated that 11 officers per year will hit their wellness milestones. Each counseling session will cost approximately $100. With the cost of two sessions per officer, a total of approximately $2200 annually is expected if every officer chooses to participate in the program.

What are the specific requirements and restrictions placed on members during their wellness time off?

We want members to limit their exposure to police-related functions and communications by setting up their work email account to inform any senders that they will be out of the office, limiting how much they drive their cruiser while on wellness time off to avoid police-related interactions with the public, avoiding work-related communication with other officers by text, phone, or social media, and avoiding unnecessary visits to the police station.

Our hope is that by adhering to these guidelines, members will begin to eliminate some of the effects of work-related burnout.

How did you arrive at the length of two weeks for the sabbatical period?

When considering the length of time off that officers would receive through the wellness plan, a lot of different numbers were thrown out there. We felt that 30 days for each officer would become a burden for the shifts or divisions they were assigned to. We also felt that 1 week off was not enough time to combat burnout and squeeze in a couple visits to a counselor. We settled on 2-3 weeks as the sweet spot where we could easily schedule someone off and the member would still receive a benefit from the program.

We don’t foresee scheduling of the program to be an issue. Our agency currently has 33 sworn members and fortunately for us, 11 members each year fell on their wellness milestone (based on their hire date). There was a good mix of officers hitting their wellness milestone from different divisions as well, with a few coming from patrol, detectives, and command staff. With a year to plan for each officer to be off, we should be able to make the program work without many adjustments to shifts at all.

How is the department coordinating with mental health professionals and facilities?

Once we knew what we wanted to accomplish, we began our search for a counseling center that could fill our needs. We reached out to the professionals at the Danville Counseling Center, who specialize in first responder counseling through a grant-funded program called “Mend the Line.” We formed a partnership with them and worked out the details of scheduling members to attend counseling sessions, the cost of the sessions for the department, diagnosing and aftercare of members, and other small details including insurance coverage.

Prior to officers participating in the wellness plan, we are organizing a presentation by the Danville Counseling Center for everyone. The counselors will come to our department to discuss what resources are available through their office and they are encouraging members to bring their spouses/significant others to the presentation in case they have questions. We are hopeful that our officers and their families will take this opportunity to become more familiar and comfortable with the counselors.

Our agency also offers a peer support team as a support system for members before and after participation in the wellness plan. We plan to offer peer support follow-up with each member if needed.

What are the expected benefits of the program for the officers and the department as a whole?

Some of the benefits we hope to see include:

  • Improved overall well-being of all members, including self-awareness and tools for self-care.
  • Reduction in depression, alcoholism, stress, and burnout.
  • Retention of employees, and improved recruitment if needed.
  • Decrease in risk/liability and litigation based on officers’ performance.
  • Increased activity due to improved department morale.
  • Reduction in sick time usage by members.

What has been the feedback from your officers about the program?

Initial reactions about the program from officers and staff were overwhelmingly positive. Officers had some great questions that made us go back into the policy and fine tune with more details. We’ve also had some great reactions and interest from other agencies that have heard about the program. Our policy is already being shared and we are hopeful it can make a difference at other agencies as well.

Do you anticipate any challenges in maintaining the program?

One challenge we might face in maintaining the program relates to shift coverage and shortages. Should we have a few officers depart from our already small agency, it could cause some hardships with scheduling members to be off for this program. It’s possible that members might have to make some sacrifices and help with coverage from other divisions, such as members of the detective’s office covering for patrol. It’s likely something like this could occur, and we should have a plan in place to ensure we are ready to deal with it.

We also have a vision for the wellness plan to expand and be part of an overall wellness policy for our department that incorporates our workout policy, which allows officers to work out while on duty, our peer support policy, and to include in-house counselors, such as our Chaplain. Captain Puckett is also working on his vision to have a peer-support team that is spread across our county to include our department, the Madison County Sheriff’s Office, EKU Police and the Richmond Police Department. Captain Puckett is still working on the finer details of this plan before presenting it to the other agencies.

What message would you want to share with other police leaders regarding the need to prioritize officer wellness?

First responders are often exposed to scenes of violence, accidents and natural disasters that can have profound psychological effects. Ignoring their mental well-being can lead to increased rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse and even suicide among this population. Furthermore, untreated mental health issues can impair their ability to perform effectively on the job, putting both themselves and the public at risk.

Prioritizing the mental health of first responders through access to adequate resources, support systems and specialized training not only safeguards their own well-being but also ensures that they can continue to serve their communities with resilience and compassion. It’s essential to recognize and address the unique challenges faced by first responders to foster a culture of mental wellness within these critical professions.

It is our hope that the Berea Police Department’s Wellness Plan is another step toward addressing these issues and moving forward with the improved mental health of first responders. It is crucial that other agencies begin to realize the significance of mental health as well, and work toward implementing their own plans for wellness.

Nancy Perry is Editor-in-Chief of Police1 and Corrections1, responsible for defining original editorial content, tracking industry trends, managing expert contributors and leading the execution of special coverage efforts.

Prior to joining Lexipol in 2017, Nancy served as an editor for emergency medical services publications and communities for 22 years, during which she received a Jesse H. Neal award. In 2022, she was honored with the prestigious G.D. Crain Award at the annual Jesse H. Neal Awards Ceremony. She has a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University of Sussex in England and a master’s degree in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California. Ask questions or submit ideas to Nancy by e-mailing