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How Law Enforcement Can Identify the Symptoms of Depression

Officers, for all their discipline and strength, are at greater risk of debilitating depression and suicide than the general public. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, major depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States. (Getty Images)

 

By Althea Olson and Mike Wasilewski for Police1.com

October seems to be a particularly significant month for a lot of people, many who even claim it as their favorite. October heralds the transition from summer to fall in much of North America, with its gentle shift in clime and color. Football and all its associated fun is in full swing, both creating and sparking memories for kids and adults. It is the perfect time for hiking, running, climbing and biking before winter takes hold. Halloween is a favorite of many, ushering in the holiday season, and, of course, ‘tis the start of all things pumpkin spice.

But for all its glory, this month has a more serious significance, and one all in law enforcement should be mindful of: October is Depression Awareness Month. Awareness and management of depression is something very important to us as law enforcement writers – especially with one of us being a psychotherapist and the other a working street cop – and it’s a message we’ll keep bringing up because of its significance. Police officers, apart from mental health providers, will see and deal with depression more than any other profession, so it is important to have knowledge, resources and tools readily available. 

But you and those closest to you are not immune to depression. In fact, the pressures and demands of the job you do can easily make you susceptible to falling victim to depression’s grip. Officers, for all their discipline and strength, are at greater risk of debilitating depression and suicide than the general public. Even if it doesn’t touch you or your immediate family, it is crushing someone you work with and care for right now, even if you are completely unaware. 

THE SCOPE OF DEPRESSIVE DISORDERS 

Compounding the direct problem of depression is the continuing stigma attached to those suffering from mental illness and the belief that it is not a real illness. Since mental illness is of the mind, many refuse to consider it as an organic disease like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, psoriasis or any other dysfunction of any other organ. Perhaps this is because the products of the minds – our thoughts, feelings and perceptions – seem abstract or somehow disconnected from organic function. 

What that abstraction ignores is that the mind springs directly from the brain, the command center, and our most complex and delicately balanced organ. Like any other organ, things can go awry and lead to diseases ranging from mild and easily corrected to life-threatening. Of these diseases, depressive disorders are extremely common, with major depression wreaking the most havoc.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, major depression is a serious medical illness affecting 15 million American adults, or approximately 5-8 percent of the adult population in a given year. Unlike normal emotional experiences of sadness, loss or passing mood states, major depression is persistent and can significantly interfere with an individual’s thoughts, behavior, mood, activity and physical health. Among all medical illnesses, major depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States.” 

Research into depression and its genesis has illuminated both the scope of the problem and its roots in genetic and biological etiology. We now know individuals coping with depression have a higher level of stress hormones present in their bodies, and brain scans of depressed patients show decreased activity in some areas of the brain. Depressed people have a lack of or overproduction of certain chemicals needed in the brain to be released into the bloodstream to stabilize a person’s mood. Without the proper chemical balance a person’s mood will fluctuate and go to lows from which a person cannot rebound back without the proper medical help and interventions.

Consider too that there are other types of serious depressive disorders, such as bipolar disorder, dysthymia (a chronic low-grade depression often lasting for months or years) and adjustment disorders with depressed mood, and the number of people suffering from depression grows by millions more. Not all depression looks or feels the same. It can come and go or fluctuate in severity and affects people in myriad ways. At its worst, depression is deadly, leading to suicide and frequent (and arguably deliberate, if even subconsciously) self-destructive habits. In less severe forms it impairs functioning, happiness and success, often leading to a self-inhibiting feedback loop. 

DEPRESSION IS HIGHLY TREATABLE WITH EFFECTIVE INTERVENTION

The good news is depressive disorders are highly treatable. The earlier someone seeks intervention, the quicker and more complete the response to treatment. Research has shown that depression treatment has as high as a 90 percent success rate when a licensed counselor and a psychiatrist, who can prescribe medication, are working in conjunction, with people generally reporting they feel more like their old selves in as little as three to six weeks. The counselor will identify behaviors and cognitive patterns that increase vulnerability to depression and then challenge and motivate the patient to begin changing out those old patterns with new behaviors and cognitions. They teach how putting the good behaviors into practice, over time, causes good feelings to eventually follow and that it is the repetitiveness of good behaviors that finally begins to heal the depression. 

Psychiatric intervention in the form of medication therapy is often indicated. Medication therapy most often treats the lack of serotonin (a hormone necessary to regulate mood) in the blood stream, or the body’s inefficient use of the serotonin it does have, and may address other known biochemical causes of mood disorders.

Stigma surrounding the use of medications to treat mental illnesses sadly remains in the law enforcement community, but if your life and well-being were threatened by another disease that could be easily treated with medications, would you refuse them?   

DO I, OR SOMEONE I CARE ABOUT, SUFFER FROM DEPRESSION?

Before depression can be treated it must be detected and diagnosed, and helping that cause is one of the major focal points of Depression Awareness Month. Recognizing some of the common symptoms of depression is important. Below are some of the indicators most commonly used by mental health practitioners. When you are experiencing any of the following, and it’s affecting your quality of life and functioning, it is time to look for help:

  • Persistent sad, anxious or empty feelings.
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism.
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness or helplessness.
  • Irritability or restlessness.
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex.
  • Fatigue and decreased energy.
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions.
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness or excessive sleeping.
  • Overeating, or appetite loss.
  • Thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts.
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.
  • Mood swings.
  • Change in motivation or getting things done.

These are all markers that are easily used for a quick self-assessment. One of the simplest but most revealing indicators we use is the answer to the following question: Are you having more bad days than good?

If the answer is “Yes” then seeking help is definitely indicated. There is a strong possibility depression is the culprit.

Depression can strike anyone and often out of the blue. While five to eight percent of the population experiencing major depression in any given year might not concern you personally, consider that as many as 45 percent of us will experience a mental health disorder at some point in our lives, with depression being a very likely component. No one is immune. And remember, even if it is not you, someone you know and care about is suffering from depression right now.  Awareness also involves looking out for those around us. 

Be well, stay safe and help us fight this silent destroyer of lives and happiness.  

This article, originally published October 2016, has been updated.

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Register Now for the 2021 Destination Zero Conference for Officer Safety and Wellness

Register now for the 2021 Destination Zero Officer Safety and Wellness Conference! This event will be held virtually from the National Law Enforcement Museum in Washington, DC on October 15th, 2021 beginning at 9 am EST, 8 am CST.

The Destination Zero Officer Safety and Wellness Conference is an annual gathering of law enforcement officials who are dedicated to improving the safety and wellness of their employees.

This year’s conference will feature sessions on Cardiac Wellness, Improving Wellness and Resiliency, Comprehensive Officer Safety, SAFLEO and Suicide Awareness, Officer Traffic Safety and the past and future of Officer Safety and Wellness at Destination Zero as well as the presentation of the 2021 National Officer Safety and Wellness Awards.

To learn more about other events during National Police Weekend, email info@nleomf.org.

The Destination Zero Conference is sponsored by The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Destination Zero is sponsored by Verizon.
 

Armed in America: It’s Not Easy Being a Retired Cop

A bouquet of flowers, left by mourners, lays near the site of Wednesday’s mass shooting, in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

 

Story By Lt. Dan Marcou for Police1.com

How would you feel if someone you had great respect for declared they were not comfortable with you being armed? This is how it happened to me.

THE NEW DOCTOR

On November 7, 2018, I went for my yearly physical. I was scheduled with a new doctor because my old doctor was retiring.  When I arrived at the hospital clinic I gave absolutely no thought to the fact I was armed. After all these years that would be like giving thought to the fact that I was wearing socks. Because my doctor was new, I told him I was retired law enforcement and showed him my identification and authorization to carry concealed

Unimpressed, he explained I had three options to choose from before he would start the physical:

  1. He could call security and I could turn my weapon over to them and retrieve it later.
  2. I could go out to my car and deposit my weapon there and return for the check-up.
  3. I could leave and reschedule the appointment.

After he said it was “policy,” I initially planned on taking door number two, but then the doctor unnecessarily added, “I’m not comfortable with you being armed.”

Those words hit me in the gut like a sock full of quarters swung by an Olympic hammer thrower. I left without having my physical exam feeling an intense sadness to the point of being physically ill. I had once commanded the SWAT team and been named SWAT Officer of the Year in Wisconsin. Now I was just an old guy and before the doctor took one look at me or asked me one question, he declared he was “not comfortable” with me being armed.

“Ouch!” It hurts my heart to think of it.

You see I had been entering this hospital armed for 40 years, mostly when the hospital needed assistance. In one case I may have saved some lives. A suspect entered the emergency room with a shotgun to kill his significant other, and I was in a position to flank him and render him unconscious with a lateral vascular neck restraint. No shots were fired and no one was hurt.

That struggle on the hospital’s behalf and countless others were long forgotten along with my years of extensive training and experience. Besides the intense sadness I felt upon hearing the doctor’s words I thought to myself, “It’s sure not easy being an old sheepdog.”

THE DAY OF THE BORDERLINE SHOOTING ATTACK

By coincidence, later that same day my resolve to continue carrying was rekindled. A man entered the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, armed with a semi-automatic .45 caliber pistol. He proceeded to kill 12 during this attack.

The first victim in the shooting was a man providing unarmed security for the bar. With no way to defend himself, he died at his post. Another victim in the Borderline attack had survived the Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting, proving that not only can this sort of lightning strike twice, but also that there is no inoculation against these killers.

Sgt. Ron Helus of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office courageously entered the Borderline while the shooting was in progress and was mortally wounded just minutes after he had concluded a phone call to his wife by saying, “I love you.”

Rest in peace brother.

CONTINUALLY DISARMED

The doctor’s words to me shine a light on a problem we face dealing with active shooters. No matter how much training, experience and proven good judgment a person possesses, some people will never be comfortable with anyone being armed.

There are countless “security” measures and signs in place to disarm people like you and me because few people are willing to recognize that having more armed, honorable gunfighters around is part of the solution to the problem of active shooters.

Requiring someone of my background and skills to disarm before entering hospitals, courthouses, restaurants, malls, schools, airports, stadiums and theaters is absolutely ludicrous. This requirement is made in spite of the fact that these locations have been prime targets of active shooters.

IT WOULD BE EASIER NOT TO BE A SHEEPDOG

Speaking from experience it would be easier to lock my Glock away in storage than to carry it every day as I do. It takes a commitment. You see anyone who carries concealed is at times:

  • Chastised by friends or family for carrying when it was “unnecessary.”
  • Required to dress a certain way to properly conceal the weapon every minute of the day.
  • Required to maintain their skills (if retired) and pay a fee to qualify every year.
  • Met with signs barring them from entering many facilities while armed. Before entering any of these places they are expected to discreetly abandon their weapon somehow, somewhere and leave it unattended, risking its loss by theft.

Sadly, even in these dangerous times, too many talented and honorable sheepdogs choose to stop carrying because it becomes a hassle to be a sheepdog 24-7.

PART OF THE SOLUTION, NOT PART OF THE PROBLEM

Not everyone who chooses to carry concealed is a “gun nut or a “bitter clinger.” They carry concealed because of an innate sense that it is their calling to protect those who can’t protect themselves.

Once a killer starts shooting, the people in the killer’s line of fire will not care if those armed sheepdogs are:

  • Police officers, arriving quickly.
  • Armed teachers.
  • Armed judges or prosecutors.
  • Armed business owners.
  • Armed pilots.
  • Armed security. (Unarmed security is hardly even a speed bump for the active shooter.)
  • Armed off-duty officers.
  • Armed retired officers.
  • Armed first responders or firefighters.
  • Armed politicians.
  • Armed citizens.

The Thousand Oaks shooting is one more example of a time when an armed, honorable gunfighter on the premises could have made a difference. It makes me wonder how many people who could legally carry concealed left their firearms at home and went to the Borderline that night because someone was “not comfortable” with them being armed.

“Ouch!” It breaks my heart to think of it.

How We Can Mitigate the Risk of Police Officer Suicides

By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski  Faculty Member, Criminal Justice for America Military University EDGE Faculty

 

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and it is important to focus our attention on the risk of suicide for police officers. Police stress accumulates over time and if it is not properly managed, that stress will cause physical and mental problems. For instance, many police officers suffer from cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, prolonged exposure to stress hormones such as cortisol, obesity, alcoholism, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The most devastating consequence of unmitigated stress for police officers is suicide. Often, a suicide may occur due to an important loss. The loss may include spousal separation or divorce, financial problems, job-related health problems or a loss of support from their workplace.

Several Factors Can Lead to Police Officer Suicides

Chronic exposure to traumatic events such as deaths or violent crime scenes can cause an officer to have suicidal thoughts. Similarly, self-blame over mistakes made in the field that led to the death of a fellow officer or citizens may also cause an officer to contemplate suicide.

Undiagnosed or unaddressed mental health problems are additional factors that contribute to police suicides. These problems are exacerbated by the stigma that exists in law enforcement over seeking mental health services. Police officers commonly fear that what they tell a counselor about a mental health problem could have a permanent impact on their careers.

In addition, there is the stress of the coronavirus pandemic and the law enforcement perception that the public does not support their work. Those factors can also have an adverse impact on an officer’s mental health.

Police Officer Suicides Are Typically Patrol Officers with Over 15 Years of Service

As of September 2021, there have been 99 police officers who have taken their own lives. According to Blue H.E.L.P., the average years of service of police officers who commit suicide is 15.6 years. Patrol officers are a substantially higher risk of suicide, compared to sergeants or lieutenants.

These statistics make sense because patrol officers typically experience the most exposure to traumatic events in the field. In fact, 2019 saw a record number of police officer suicides in the United States. In 2019, 228 current or former police officers took their lives that year, while 172 officers committed suicide in 2018.

The Role of Police Agencies and Coworkers in Preventing Officer Suicides

Nothing is more devastating to a police agency than the loss of an officer, whether that death occurs on the job or as a result of a suicide. Agencies have a very important role to play in mitigating officer suicide.

A shift in police culture is needed. Ideally, police culture should be more supportive of police officers who are struggling to cope after experiencing traumatic events and are seeking counseling.

In addition to taking action when an officer experiences trauma or stressful events that could lead to suicidal thoughts, agencies must take more steps to support their officers’ mental health. Providing the option to transition into specialized units and creating new work opportunities within the agency are helpful ways to disrupt the cumulative stress that can occur from remaining on road patrol. Another tactic is to have tools and resources available that lead to mental health support services.

Supervisors should also regularly monitor and talk with their subordinates if they notice an officer undergoing stress or see indicators that an officer may have suicidal thoughts. Special attention should be paid to police officers who display significant changes in their behavior, attitude, or work ethic following traumatic events in the field or in their personal lives.

To monitor for mental health issues, supervisors should ask questions during annual or semi-annual employee reviews.  For instance, a supervisor could ask how the subordinate is managing stress and also have a discussion with the office to determine if there are indicators of mental health problems.

Coworkers also have a vital role in monitoring mental health problems in other police officers. Peer support programs within police agencies can be an effective way for officers to confide in their peers, discuss their struggles and find practical solutions.

More attention needs to remains on the issue of police officer suicides. In time, we can hopefully prevent this problem from growing.  

 

About the Author

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate criminal justice professor in the School of Security and Global Studies and has over two decades in the field of homeland security. His expertise includes human trafficking, maritime security and narcotics trafficking trends. Jarrod recently conducted in-country research in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in human and narcotics trafficking. Jarrod can be reached through his website at www.Sadulski.com for more information.

The Mind-Body Connection: Emotional & Biological Effects of Hypervigilance

Officer mental health is significantly impacted by the ongoing stressors experienced every day on the job – which is in part a physiological experience. To be tactically effective, public safety personnel operate in a state of possibility thinking, in which all possible outcomes or circumstances must be considered. (Getty Images)

 

Story By Miriam Childs for Police 1

Mind vs. body; emotional vs. physical; mental vs. physiological. We often separate these things from one another, not understanding that they are inextricably connected.

Great nutrition and consistent exercise are vital components of fitness but alone are not enough to ensure health. Wellness challenges are a whole-body problem – behavioral and biological – so they require a holistic approach.

Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, author of the pioneering book on police officer wellness, “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement,” describes the physiological challenges faced by law enforcement officers that can lead to the wellness issues we often see in policing, such as depression, PTSD, alcohol abuse and suicidal ideation: “We talk about the psychological concepts of policing and what psychologically occurs to police officers, but we don’t hear anything about the physical challenges to police.”

While critical incidents are major contributors to these struggles, officer mental health is significantly impacted by the ongoing stressors experienced every day on the job – which is in part a physiological experience.

HYPERVIGILANCE AND THE BIOLOGICAL ROLLER COASTER

Law enforcement officers, correctional officers, dispatchers and other public safety professionals must look at the world through a unique lens due to the demands of the job.

To be tactically effective, public safety personnel operate in a state of possibility thinking, in which all possible outcomes or circumstances must be considered, rather than the typical probability thinking of the average individual. Instead of trusting that something probably will or will not happen, officers must consider the worst-case scenario at all times. This type of thinking has the potential to destroy the physical and mental health of the officer if carried into off-duty life.

“That type of thinking reduces tactical casualties, but it really increases emotional casualties because, when the officer or dispatcher is in that elevated state, they’re in this heightened level of alertness,” Dr. Gilmartin explains.

Possibility thinking – looking out for the safety of themselves, their colleagues and the community members they serve – causes a biological response in hypervigilance. Cops maintain this state of heightened alertness the entire duration of their shift, says Dr. Gilmartin. “The problem is, when they get off-duty, that sympathetic autonomic response becomes a parasympathetic response where they’re detached, they’re isolated and they’re disengaged.”

This state of hypervigilance, followed by the let-down after the shift, is what is referred to as the “biological rollercoaster.”

THE LETHAL TRIAD

The lethal triad arises out of the biological effects of extended periods of hypervigilance. For law enforcement officers, this triad – (1) isolation, (2) anger and (3) projection of blame – is emotional in nature. When these three occur simultaneously, the officer is in a dangerous position.

Isolation allows officers to sit in their singular view of the world. In this state, explains Dr. Gilmartin, “we’re not looking for information, we’re looking for affirmation.”

At the same time, officers can experience anger from violated expectations in circumstances out of their control – they themselves can do nothing to change the situation. When officers are isolated in this world of anger, they search for a solution, for someone to blame for their problems and their emotional reaction to those problems. This cycle only leads to greater problems as officers’ anger increases over what they are unable to control.

So, what’s the solution? How can officers “turn off” their on-duty brain and transition into different roles in their lives, such as a parent, spouse, friend, hobbyist and more? By focusing on the things officers can control and removing the barrier created by officer isolation, says Dr. Gilmartin: “We break that lethal triad by socializing, by interacting, by becoming members of the community.”

Officers must set tangible off-duty goals of what they will do with their friends and family to help them once again foster that desire to engage with loved ones after work.

IDENTITY

The biological roller coaster, the lethal triad and their effects are drastically impacted by officer identity. A common issue with law enforcement professionals is a singular identity rooted in the profession. When this is an officer’s state of mind, it exacerbates the physiological and emotional effects of hypervigilance and the lethal triad, leading to greater issues down the line – both physically and emotionally. Conversely, when officers hold to identities rooted in their many roles in life (police officer, parent, spouse, friend, hobbyist), they will be less likely to detach and isolate, to focus on things outside of their control, and to experience the physical and mental health ailments so tragically common among law enforcement personnel.

Physical and emotional health are related, and thorough understanding is critical to the wellness of public safety professionals. This includes the prevention and treatment of physical ailments, such as diabetes and cardiac arrest, and mental health issues, such as PTSD and depression. Understanding both sides of the coin allows officers and agencies to address concerns with a more complete picture of the problem and its solution.

Miriam Childs is an experienced digital marketer who has served as Lexipol’s marketing coordinator since 2020. She has a bachelor’s degree in Marketing from the University of Texas at Arlington.

To Extend or Not to Extend: Factoring in the Effects of Extended Shifts on Law Enforcement

Agencies must weigh the pros and cons of shift schedules to do what they can to ensure success – for officers, the agency and the community.

Captain Rex M. Scism (Ret) for Police1

For many years, 8-hour shifts were virtually universal in public safety – they divide evenly into 24-hours, accommodating the 24/7 nature of policing, and have been the standard across most professions.

In recent decades, many law enforcement agencies have modified their shift schedules, incorporating – or completely moving to – 10-and-12-hour shifts. Officers often prefer these longer shifts due to the increased time off-duty and greater flexibility they offer. But what are the effects of extended shifts on the agency and on individual officers’ physical and mental health?

Since the introduction of extended shifts into policing, the question has remained: Which shift structure is best? What provides the best coverage for the community and the best work-life balance for officers?

While the answers to these questions are not exactly cut-and-dry, it’s important for each agency to weigh the pros and cons of different shift schedules to do what they can to ensure success – for officers, the agency and, ultimately, the community.

WHY (NOT) EXTENDED SHIFTS?

Law enforcement professionals will have their own opinions when it comes to shift length – but it’s important for agency leaders to look at what the data reveals about 8-hour, 10-hour and 12-hour shifts. Studies over the past several decades have revealed the good, the bad and the differences when it comes to shift lengths.

Various studies have revealed trends in sleep quantity and quality related to shift length, indicating 10-hour shifts provide on average four additional hours of sleep when compared to 8-hour shifts – and that the sleep was of subjectively higher quality. The improvement in sleep for those operating in 10-hour shifts also led to a higher quality of work life. Conversely, those working 12-hour shifts experienced greater sleepiness and diminished alertness, while 8-hour shifts led to more overtime than either extended shift option.

Extended shifts do offer some clear benefits, including greater versatility due to the longer stretches of time individuals/teams are working continuously. Some research has also indicated that extended shifts can lead to reduced costs for officers and agencies, as well as reduced call response time. Finally, if agencies choose to operate under 10-hour shifts, they can overlap officers’ schedules accordingly to offer increased coverage during peak demand periods.

On the flip side, studies have revealed that extended shifts have the potential to reduce unity of command, leading to a breakdown in communication between, and even within, shifts. One of the biggest concerns with the debate on extended shifts is the risk of fatigue. The number of hours per shift and the risk of injury has a direct relationship: As the shift length increases, so does the potential for on-the-job injury.

DECIDING FOR YOUR AGENCY

One important note when deciding on whether to move your agency to (or from) extended shifts: Shift length can dramatically impact employee morale – for better or worse. Officers tend to favor longer shifts because of the greater number of consecutive days off they receive, providing more time for rest, leisure or secondary employment opportunities. While this is surely a critical consideration, it’s important not to implement extended shifts to the detriment of either the agency or the employees’ wellbeing.

While no one solution is perfect for every agency, there is a scenario for your department that finds the appropriate balance between rest cycles, work-life balance, employee morale and operational coverage.

Preventing Officer Suicides

The SAFLEO program is helping train law enforcement agencies to deal with officer suicides when they occur, and to find ways to prevent them before they happen.

By Paul Peluso for Officer.com

As the number of officer suicides increases with each passing year, law enforcement leaders are searching for way to stop their brothers and sisters in blue from taking their own lives. In 2019, there were 228 recorded officer suicides, while there were 139 line of duty deaths.

The SAFLEO (Suicide Awareness for Law Enforcement Officers) program, which is supported by a grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), aims to provide training, technical assistance and resources to law enforcement agencies, staff and families to raise awareness, erase the stigma and reduce and prevent officer suicides. The program includes a suite of in-person and online training and technical assistance that is provided at no cost.

During a recent discussion hosted by the National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum and moderated by Program Manager Nick Breul, a retired Washington, D.C. Metropolitan police officer, BJA Acting Director Kristen Mahoney and Brandon Post, a Senior Research Associate with the Institute for Intergovernmental Research who served with the Provo Police Department in Utah for 20 years before his retirement in January, both spoke about the importance of training in suicide prevention and the steps law enforcement agencies can take to prevent officer suicides.

A Stressful Time for LE

Breul opened the discussion by putting the current situation officers find themselves in into perspective. “This is a very timely program given everything that’s happening in law enforcement with the civil unrest, with COVID, with the continual stream of negative imagery and scrutiny that law enforcement is coming under right now,” he says. “So, it’s an incredibly stressful time for law enforcement and unfortunately, sometimes that stress leads to officers taking their own lives; which is what this program is designed to educate, create awareness and hopefully help prevent.”

The BJA created the SAFLEO program with the Institute for Intergovernmental Research and its partners, the National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum, the American Association of Suicidology and the Major City Chiefs Association. They’ve brought together training, assistance and other resources into one place.

“SAFLEO came into being because we recognize that our nation’s officers have a high degree of exposure to stress and trauma and unfortunately, because of this, officers seem to have a higher prevalence of suicidal ideation,” says Mahoney. “The SAFLEO program’s purpose is to stop that trend and provide meaningful support and resources to our law enforcement officers. We have found that a drastic change needs to happen in how we address officer wellness and suicide.”

Have a plan in place

Losing an officer to suicide can be a devastating event for the department, individual officers—especially those who are close to the officer who is deceased—operations staff and the officer’s family. Post says that losing an officer to suicide is not something agencies typically prepare for. “We recognize that this is a very dangerous profession and that we can lose an officer in the line of duty, and we have policies and procedures in place in case that terrible event ever occurs,” he says. “However, not nearly as many of us have a policy or procedure in place in case we lose an officer to suicide, which is unfortunate because statistically speaking, we are more likely to lose an officer to suicide than we are to lose one to a line of duty death. It’s important to be prepared for this possibility because dealing with the tragic loss of an officer, that’s incredibly difficult, and making necessary decisions in the immediate aftermath of a suicide can be overwhelming.”

Following an officer suicide, there are difficult questions that need to be answered. Are death notifications different for suicides? How does the leader of the agency address the media? Will funeral protocols be different? How is the department going to care for the deceased officer’s family? Should there be a departmental debrief? Post says that one of the most important questions an agency needs to ask after a suicide occurs is: Is there a potential danger of contagion where other officers may die by suicide?

It can be easier to make these critical decisions when not dealing with the emotional storm associated with a suicide and having a protocol in place to respond to law enforcement suicides that can assist in minimizing the added pain toward loved ones, colleagues and the department, Post noted. That goes along the SAFLEO program, which just recently published a postvention suicide guide to help departments prepare for this tragedy, should it ever occur.

“We lose more officers to suicide than assaults and traffic accidents combined every year,” he says. “That fact alone should mandate a call to action on the part of our profession to provide meaningful support and resources.”

Erasing the stigma

Post recently participated in a web event that included a clinical psychologist who has dealt with thousands of officers over the course of his career. He said one commonality he sees is that officers are more worried about people finding out they ask for help than they are about getting well. The same event featured an officer who had been involved in a critical event in which she found herself on the ground fighting with a man twice her size who pulled out a gun. She stayed in the fight and survived but was shot in the face.

“In the aftermath, where she’s healing from some pretty significant physical, emotional and mental injuries, she realizes that she’s struggling with suicidal ideation. The statement she made was that reaching out and asking for help and admitting that she was suicidal—that was more frightening than the critical incident itself,” he says. “We have a definite stigma in this profession against reaching out and asking for help and taking care of ourselves. We’ve got some real work to do to change this because in this profession we are constantly exposed to things that are outside the bounds of normal human experience and it is normal human behavior to be bothered by some of the things we see and experience each day.”

In 2019, the New York City Police Department and the Police Executive Research Forum hosted a meeting on officer suicides. Afterward, PERF released a report entitled ‘An Occupational Risk: What Every Police Agency Should Do to Prevent Suicide Amongst Its Officers’ and they recommended that law enforcement leaders make employees’ mental health care a priority and provide robust officer wellness programming.

Mahoney says that it was the first time she heard so many people come together and talk about officer suicides openly and honestly. “Like that day at the NYPD, we need to constantly have open dialogue and create and encourage a culture within law enforcement where talking about wellness and asking for help is OK, and that’s what we’re doing through SAFLEO.”

Learn more about the SAFELEO program at https://www.valorforblue.org/SAFLEO

COPS Office Provides Wellness Provider Vetting Guide

The guide is available online only and can be accessed here.


Product ID: COPS-W0963
Publication Date: 08/09/2021
Author(s): Fraternal Order of Police Division of Wellness Services

Staying Healthy in the Fray: The Impact of Crowd Management on Officers in the Context of Civil Unrest

The last few years have presented unprecedented challenges, both to our communities and to public safety officers and first responders—especially law enforcement. Current events, including COVID 19, political rhetoric and chaos, societal conflict and division, and attacks on the policing institution, individual officers, and officers’ families, have created a challenging environment where stress and trauma increased exponentially.

High stress police operations such as crowd management during periods of civil unrest is mentally and physically demanding. Crowd management often challenges officers to push their bodies beyond normal limits, leading to poor performance, fatigue, insomnia, and injury.

In the summer of 2020, many officers repeatedly worked shifts that, at times, exceeded 12 hours, for 10 to 12 days straight, leaving little time for appropriate nutrition, rest, exercise, recovery, or sleep. Large numbers of arrests, long periods on bicycles, standing or moving in formations, or responding to threats are physically and mentally demanding.

In light of the current environment, the National Police Foundation (NPF) has developed STAYING HEALTHY IN THE FRAY, a brief guide for law enforcement agencies on ways to recognize and protect the physical and mental wellbeing of officers during responses to intense and protracted protests and demonstrations.

Both physical and mental stressors are taking a toll on the women and men who have dedicated their lives to protecting our communities. This guidebook offers educational information and practical considerations for sworn officers of all ranks, particularly frontline officers and mid-level supervisors, as well as their families, to better protect officers’ mental and physical wellbeing during times of heightened stress.

Furthermore, this guidebook can be used as a resource by police leaders in promoting healthy organizational cultures that recognize  and  prioritize officer  safety  and wellness  as an  integral  part of  policing  protests—which ultimately can help foster better outcomes for all involved.

The content in this guidebook has been curated and derived from a review of research from professional medical organizations and has been peer reviewed by licensed mental health clinicians and law enforcement practitioners.

Author:
National Police Foundation

Training day: Documentary Provides Perspective on Police Mental Health Response

Law enforcement agencies can stream “Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops” for free through May 2022 to better prepare cops to respond to people in crisis.

By Joel Shults for Police1.com

Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops” is a 95-minute HBO documentary about two members of the San Antonio Police Department’s Mental Health Unit (MHU). The film explores the experiences of these two Texas police officers who use de-escalation techniques to resolve mental health calls. The film aims to spark dialogue about the culture of policing and better prepare cops to respond to people in crisis, according to the documentary’s filmmakers

Police agencies may register for unlimited free streaming access to the documentary. A 25-minute version is also available. Register here using code EJCC-POLICE1. Suggested questions for your shift, squad or department to discuss after viewing the documentary are listed at the end of this article.

Viewers will see actual encounters between Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro with persons in distress. All the narrative of the video is done by the partners. Ernie is the most senior officer and a charter member of the unit. Joe is the younger. Although the unit has grown in numbers, it is clear from the in-car computer that the list of mental health-related requests rolls along in the list of pending calls. Their numbers are too high for the specialized unit to respond to all of them, validating the growing narrative of mental health issues growing beyond law enforcement’s capacity to handle them. The special unit is only able to handle far fewer than even 10% of the crisis calls that come in.

As the list of pending calls shows the label of mental health on the roster, the narration explains that “mental health” was not even a call category with dispatch until the formation of the MHU. Categories of disturbance, suicidal subject, family disputes, or other labels covered the event.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE RIGHT APPROACH

Ernie and Joe are shown conducting training with both law enforcement and other professionals who encounter persons in mental health crisis. Using guest speakers who deal with mental health issues, the crisis cops help others understand the role of the MHU, as well as provide insight on working with persons in crisis toward a peaceful conclusion of a contact. MHU officers also do follow-up contacts to help ensure that their subjects’ referrals and available services are being accessed. Not all long-term hopes for those they intercede with are met, but the success stories are motivational.

Ernie and Joe acknowledge that there is skepticism among police officers for their philosophy of interacting with disturbed persons. They work in plain clothes in an unmarked car, although they are clear about identifying themselves as police officers. Officers watching the film will shudder as they see traditional officer safety tactics set aside. Although in one scenario where a weapon was reported to be possibly involved, they call for uniform back up, don their ballistic vests and expose their sidearms, their approach and demeanor to those they are hoping to help is intentionally not an attitude of aggression.

THE IMPORTANCE OF PERSONAL PURPOSE

The documentary provides some insight into the lives of Joe, an Iraq combat veteran with a PTSD diagnosis, and Ernie, the father of a teenager.

Both officers work overtime in uniformed assignments in addition to their full-time assignment to MHU. Joe is portrayed as going through a divorce, using painting to deal with the stresses of life and the job. Ernie seems more content as he enjoys his work, working to continue his education with an eye toward retirement and a new career as a teacher.

The importance of these personal insights is that it shows that developing skills for dealing with persons in distress does not require perfection in one’s own life.

THE IMPORTANCE OF POLICE TRAINING

The team notes that officers traditionally had 60 hours of firearms training in the academy with just an eight-hour block on crisis intervention. By the time of the filming of the documentary that training has been increased to 40 hours, much of which is taught by MHU members. They hope that the insights into mental health crises can be applied to reducing police suicides and increasing peer support within the agency.

THE IMPORTANCE OF TIME

They emphasize that time is an essential component of peaceful outcomes – “as long as it takes” – even while calls are stacked up. After all, other officers stay out of service for as long as it takes to work a crash or book a suspect. Knowing when to allow a subject some control and responsibility for their decisions rather than using persuasion rather than coercion, allowing appropriate and meaningful presence and physical contact, being honest about one’s own fear and concerns, and allowing the officer most comfortable with the situation to take the lead are all demonstrated in the movie.

THE IMPORTANCE OF DISCUSSION

Whether the short or long version is part of a training day, the documentary is a worthy springboard for discussion, reframing, critique and a new perspective on dealing with mental health crisis calls. As the national conversation on mental health and law enforcement’s role in responding to crises continues, no police agency can escape taking some action to report to their constituents how they are dealing with these issues. This viewing may be a great first step.

After watching “Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops,” use the following questions to start a discussion about the documentary and police mental health response:

  • How do responders address officer safety tactics in the context of establishing trust in close contact with a subject?
  • It is not unusual for persons encountering the police to have extreme emotional responses. What are some signs of a person having a mental health crisis along with the stress of a police encounter?
  • How does the pressure of calls pending affect devoting time to effective intervention in a mental health crisis?
  • How can you use your personal experiences to help you relate to persons in crisis?
  • What might be your long-term process in dealing with a failed suicide intervention?
  • Many special assignments are on a rotational basis to balance experience with getting a break from the unique stresses of undercover work, working child abuse cases, or working in a mental health unit? What are the pros and cons of rotating assignments?
  • What strategies did you see the officers in the film using to keep their personal lives and mental health in balance?
  • What efforts can agencies engage in to help officers maintain resilience and recovery from trauma?
  • How confident are you that most of your colleagues are highly competent in dealing with mental health crises?
  • The environment of police-citizen encounters is very important. In what ways can an officer control the environment?
  • How important is being in plain clothes for mental health response units? What is the role of uniformed backup for these officers?

Click here to register your agency to stream “Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops” for free unlimited streaming through May 2022 using code EJCC-POLICE1.

Also watch Joe Smarro’s TEDxSan Antonio’s talk “I See You” on officer mental wellness:

MENTAL HEALTH OUTREACH RESOURCES FROM POLICE1