The Future of Wellness for Law Enforcement, Fire, and Other High-Stress Occupations
Gordon Graham here and thanks for taking the time to read this brief piece. I have divided the total number of words in this writing by the number of words an average person can read per minute (200 to 250), and according to my calculations it will take you 12–15 minutes to read all three parts of this post. In my opinion, this might be the best use of 12 minutes you have experienced in your career.
Speaking of numbers, let’s get started with this: Add the number of cops in America to the number of firefighters in America to the number of 9-1-1 personnel in America to all the other support personnel in American public safety, and you will have well over 2 million people. Assume that during any 24-hour cycle about half of these people are working. And then further assume each of these people makes 10 contacts (in person, online, on the phone) with members of our great public.
Do the math: American public safety makes 10 million contacts on a daily basis. And you and I both know the vast majority of these contacts go smoothly—things get done right! I have traveled around the world and I am convinced that American public safety does it better than anyone else. We do a great job of taking care of the citizens of this great nation.
This great performance is not accidental—it’s not just luck. We have spent a lot of time and money on getting and keeping good people, building great policies and procedures, providing constant training, getting supervisors to enforce the policies and addressing those few people who do not follow policy.
We spend this time and money knowing that the return on investment is fantastic. Getting things done right helps reduce liability exposure, enhances the reputation of our respective departments and helps us achieve our overall goal of preserving life in our communities.
But how are we doing at taking care of the great people who take care of the public day in and day out? Sadly, while we do a great job of taking care of our citizens, we do a terrible job at taking care of our personnel! Too many of our personnel are depressed, out of shape, grossly fatigued, and otherwise not well.
This lack of wellness can be very expensive. When employees are not 100%, they are less productive, more likely to sustain an injury and more likely to get a complaint from a citizen. When the lack of wellness causes them to not come to work, there are huge costs in overtime.
Wellness includes both physical and mental health issues. Over the years we have improved the physical safety of our personnel. Just a quick example of this is found in the number of line-of-duty deaths (LODDs). Focusing very quickly on the law enforcement side of things, in my first full year on the job in 1974, there were 285 LODDs in American law enforcement. Last year, in 2018, that number was 150.
Please do not think the level of violence directed at law enforcement personnel has gone down—in fact there is preliminary evidence that ambushes against officers have increased in recent years! But we have spent a lot of time and money on training, equipment to make police officers safer. In addition, the development of EMS as a field played a key role. Paramedics around this country have saved the lives of so many cops with their quick actions in treating physical injuries.
But again, what are we doing to better protect our personnel? While LODDs in American law enforcement have dropped dramatically over the last 45 years, what about suicide rates for our public safety personnel? Despite the fact that firefighters and law enforcement tend to display very strong psychological health at the outset of their careers, a 2015 study revealed that nearly 50% of firefighters have considered suicide during their careers.1When we seek to understand how this could be the case it is notable that a 2016 study found that firefighters “suffer from high rates of mental disorders, with rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and heavy drinking continuing to rise in a linear manner with each additional trauma exposure.”2
Law enforcement nationwide reported overwhelmingly in a 2018 survey that stress on the job has impacted their mental health, and according to data published by Blue H.E.L.P, law enforcement suicides have been exceeding all combined causes of official LODDs.3,4
As striking as those statistics may be, the reality appears to be much worse: Many researchers believe suicides of public safety personnel may be underreported by a factor of 2.5. In other words, many of the most psychologically tough and resilient people in our society are killing themselves at alarming rates, and we need to take much stronger action to proactively address this problem.If our primary mission in public safety is “preservation of life,” we are not doing such a great job in preserving the lives of our employees.
In my live programs I often ask, “How many of you personally knew a fellow cop or firefighter who was killed in the line of duty?” A few hands will go up in every group of people I am addressing. I follow up with another question: “How many of you knew a fellow cop or firefighter who took their own life?” And the number of hands that go up in any given group is always higher.
As I look at the programs of national and statewide conferences for public safety personnel, I see more and more people are starting to recognize the risks involved in not taking care of our people. “Wellness” is a hot topic and there are a variety of model programs out there attempting to meet the needs of public safety personnel.
In my way of thinking, any effort to help our people maximize their wellness is a good program. But “good” should not be the goal—we have to look for “better and best.”
A friend of mine (and highly respected chief of police) John Carli introduced me to Cordico last year. I am very impressed with the company and what they are doing to “maximize wellness” in our public safety personnel. I am particularly impressed with the founder of this company, Dr. David Black.
I will turn things over to him now so you can get the overview of what he is doing, how you can get more information, and how this great program can benefit each and every one or your employees.
- Stanley I, Horn M, Hagan C et al. Career prevalence and correlates of suicidal thoughts and behaviors among firefighters. J Affect Disord. 2015;187:163–171.
- Harvey SB, Milligan-Saville JS, Paterson HM et al. The mental health of fire-fighters: An examination of the impact of repeated trauma exposure. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2016 Jul;50(7):649-58.
- Hayes C. (April 11, 2018) ‘Silence can be deadly’: 46 officers were fatally shot last year. More than triple that — 140 — committed suicide. USA Today. Retrieved 4/8/19 from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/04/11/officers-firefighters-suicides-study/503735002/.
- Ushery D, Manney D, Stulberger E. (Nov. 20, 2018) I-Team: Nearly 1 in 5 Cops Has Considered Suicide Amid Stigma Around Mental Health Issues. NBC 4 New York. Retrieved 4/8/19 from https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/I-Team-Nearly-1-in-5-Cops-Has-Considered-Suicide-Amid-Stigma-Around-Mental-Health-Issues-500928011.html.