Building Support: Why Peer Support Teams are at the Heart of a Healthy Agency – A Lexipol Q&A with Dr. David Black
The work of law enforcement is largely misunderstood by the general public, including most healthcare providers. Couple this with the stress of the job—stress both acute and cumulative—and it’s understandable why many police officers feel isolated.
That’s the bad. The good news is that increasingly, individual officers and departments are embracing the idea and practice of peer support: First responders helping each other through rough patches and building up resiliency through the ranks.
In this Q&A with Dr. David Black, CEO of Cordico, we explore the following topics around peer support:
- The Why & How of Peer Support
- Peer Support Team Makeup and Members
- Legal and Administrative Issues
- Leadership Support
The Why & How of Peer Support
What is the objective of peer support?
Peer support helps fellow officers in times of personal or professional crises. It also helps to anticipate needs before crises arise and prevent them from occurring. Specially trained peers can provide a level of support for officers that is qualitatively different from what anyone else can offer, because peers tend to be deeply familiar with the shared culture, work environment, common experiences and key challenges shared across the profession and within their agency.
Why do you think there’s so much interest in peer support these days?
Increased attention on the issue of law enforcement suicides has caused the profession to more deeply acknowledge and confront the trauma of this critical and demanding work. That attention has also acted as a driving force to help increase interest in the creation and maintenance of peer support teams.
But there are also social changes playing large roles. Much stricter standards for public conduct of first responders exist now and, as a result, there’s much more isolation and formality than was the case in the past. Twenty years ago, you’d go into a police department and it was an environment where people would hang out together and tell jokes and laugh. Folks would socialize and barbeque on weekends. After a stressful day, you might vent to coworkers over a beer or two. You see a lot less of that nowadays. There’s now a much clearer split between work life and personal life. In many ways this is a healthy change, but it has led to many negative consequences, including that too often department leaders, supervisors and peers don’t know how their team is doing emotionally.
That’s why I say peer support often acts a barometer. Peer support teams, when functioning at their best, are alert to how their department is doing emotionally, as a whole and as individuals. We’re seeing a greater need for that awareness as our lives become more compartmentalized.
Additionally, law enforcement is a helping profession focused on serving others, and being there for your peers at their times of greatest need is very appealing to many in the profession. The best peer support team members are extremely passionate about their work and highly motivated to care for those who serve their communities.
How widespread is peer support?
Peer support exists in law enforcement agencies of all types and sizes, and if you attend peer support conferences you see clearly that the prevalence of peer support teams is increasing rapidly. However, far too many agencies lack access to peer support and suffer greatly as a result. It’s my hope that the prevalence of peer support will continue to rapidly expand and that all law enforcement will have access to skilled and dedicated peer support resources in the years ahead. We’re now able to leverage technology in new ways to help achieve that vision.
Why should every agency have a peer support resource?
As I noted, peer support is the internal barometer for the agency. Ideally, a member of the team knows an issue is arising and starts to work through it even before it arises.
But beyond that, law enforcement is among the most stressful responsibilities I can imagine. Day in and day out, officers are called into the worst trauma of our society. They rest and then they jump right back into it. What do you do with that trauma? Without peer support, who do you have to turn to? Who can you trust? Who in the department knows when something is wrong?
Unfortunately, too many of our officers aren’t finding the resources and outlets they need to deal with the stress. Law enforcement suicide remains a challenging and serious issue. In fact, the International Association of Chiefs of Police had suicide prevention as their organizing principle for their 2019 conference. So there is a huge emphasis on wellness, particularly among police and firefighters, and that’s very welcomed. Peer support is, or should be, the front line of these efforts.
When should peer support be enlisted to help?
Peer support should be involved in anything that overwhelms an officer’s ability to cope. This can be an officer involved shooting, mass casualty event, hospitalization, divorce, death notification, substance abuse—even trouble sleeping! Peer support sees it all. On the other hand, for the person suffering—in the hospital or after a shooting, as examples—peer support is often the only contact they have with their department or even the outside world altogether. This can be their lifeline.
But peer support teams are not restricted to being reactive, and the best peer support teams play strong proactive roles in their departments. This includes quick and confidential conversations with someone who cares, who’s been there before, and who knows how to relate. Simply having someone available, who understands and cares deeply, can make an enormous difference. Many peer support teams also provide training on topics such as family support, resilience, sleep optimization and suicide prevention to help proactively train, prepare and strengthen their personnel for the stressors of the job.
Peer Support Team Makeup and Members
How does someone become a peer support team member?
The careful and deliberate selection of peer support team members is vital and essential to the future success of any peer support program. Team members are often nominated from within their departments and they should be available and willing to passionately support their peers during their times of need. Peer support team members must also be 100% trustworthy and committed to upholding confidentiality, because they will need to be trusted with the most intimate and personal details shared by peers who are seeking help. If the personnel in an agency don’t trust the peer support team, the program will not have a future. Legal and policy exceptions to confidentiality vary at the state level and must be clearly understood and communicated to ensure common awareness (more on this in the “Legal and Administrative Issues” section of this document).
Who belongs on a peer support team?
You want a wide variety of people—sworn and not sworn; different ages, assignments, ethnicities and races; and so on—a group that can be relatable to anyone in your department. It’s often the case that people want to talk about difficult issues with someone they perceive to be more like themselves. The more they feel they can be heard, the better. For example, if an officer is having a hard time with prescription pills, he or she might benefit most from working with a fellow officer who’s been through a similar struggle. Diversity really matters here and cannot be overstated.
And, of course, you want to attract people to the team who are deeply driven to help others. First responders help people. That’s why people become cops, firefighters, EMS providers and dispatchers in the first place: to help others. The highest calling in this work is to save a life—and that includes the life of a coworker. Think about it: You can literally save a hero’s life through this work. What could possibly be more gratifying than that?
So much of what peer support team members do is listening—active listening, that is, rather than going into advice mode. In fact, more often than not the coworker seeking help just wants to get something off his or her chest. They want to tell someone who will understand, someone who’s been there, not someone who will judge or diagnose them. So good listeners are essential.
How do you determine whether an officer who’s been through a traumatic experience is ready to serve on a peer support team?
These decisions are always made on a case-by-case basis, and it’s important to balance caution with a realistic understanding of how quickly someone can recover from setbacks they may have experienced. It’s important to understand the vast majority of psychological symptoms faced by first responders are transitory in nature— almost everyone gets better with treatment, time and the right type of helpful support. It is unfair and unhelpful to effectively punish a peer support team member because they may have experienced difficulties such as post-traumatic stress, depression or problems with alcohol abuse, and at the same time it’s very important to provide them with the time needed to ensure their recovery and ability to care for themselves in a healthy manner. It’s often very helpful and advisable to involve a skilled law enforcement clinician to help facilitate this process in supportive manner.
Should we be concerned about burnout among peer support team members?
Burnout and compassion fatigue are very real phenomena experienced by people working in high-stress professions. Burnout is associated long-term work stress and involves feeling more exhausted and less effective over time. Compassion fatigue arises because we all have limits to our empathy.
Fortunately, there are antidotes to both burnout and compassion fatigue. Burnout can be reduced through resilience training and improvements to self-care, sleep and stress management, along with a renewed commitment to one’s work and improvements to scheduling and, in some cases, workload distribution. Compassion fatigue is often reduced by being around inspiring people doing great work with a passion for helping others. When we see someone else go above and beyond in caring for others and behaving selflessly, or even heroically, we often feel a restored sense of compassion and empathy along with a sense of inspiration. Peer support can often play a very important role in reducing both burnout and compassion fatigue, because peer support team members can provide the training and education helpful to decrease burnout while also displaying the empathy and selfless concern for others that tends to be an antidote to compassion fatigue.
People who work in peer support get to save lives. And because they work in first response, they are around inspirational people all the time. Your coworkers are out there making a difference every day and if you’re attuned to that, you get inspired by it. So, yes, it’s a huge concern for the medical profession, but if you’ve ever been around peer support people you know this is a passionate crowd!
Note: For more on caring for peer support team members, access Lexipol’s on-demand webinar, “Safeguarding Your Peer Support Program.”
Legal and Administrative Issues
Why is confidentiality so important in peer support?
Confidentiality is the bedrock foundation of any peer support program. Think about it: Without confidentiality, why would anyone trust utilizing peer support? There is a great deal of stigma around mental and emotional health, unfortunately. Mental health isn’t about weakness. In fact, it’s the opposite. We all have ups and downs in life. Working through and learning from the rough patches is how we grow as people. But, sadly, it isn’t always seen that way.
But even without the toxic stigma, topics such as depression, anxiety, addiction, etc., are difficult to talk about. Certainly, they aren’t the sorts of topics many people want others to associate with them—especially first responders who want to be seen as reliable and dependable by their peers. So confidentiality is essential and, really, sets the stage of successful peer support programs.
Does a peer support conversation ever lead to discipline? When an officer accesses peer support, does it create a department record or go into the officer’s personnel file? Does anyone need to know beyond the officer and the peer support team member?
This is huge. Peer support has nothing to do with discipline. Nothing.
The goal of peer support must be to help, not to get people in trouble. For example, suppose a police officer tells you she’s been drinking on the job. If you’re on the peer support team, your job is to get her help. Keep the public safe—send her home if she’s been drinking, for example—but help her get better. The moment discipline becomes part of the equation, all trust breaks down.
Use of peer support must be kept confidential. There should be no note to an officer’s personnel file, for example, if an officer utilizes peer support. Many departments do maintain aggregate data of peer support utilization, in a manner that maintains confidentiality and does not identify any individuals, while also providing data to help demonstrate the success and utilization of the program over time.
Are conversations with peer support team members protected legally, the way a conversation with a psychologist is?
Peer support team members need to understand the level of confidentiality permitted by the laws of their state. Some states provide a legal privilege, while others do not. Some departments include certain topics, such as officer-involved shootings and IA investigations, as off-limits to peer support in order to preserve boundaries around issues subject to legal or administrative oversight. When establishing your peer support team guidelines, these types of concerns should be balanced with an awareness that issues such as officer-involved shootings and IA investigations can generate a very high level of stress, and high-stress situations are precisely when we want our personnel to be using peer support. It’s critical to ensure your policies and regulations on these types of issues are established in advance to ensure awareness and avoid misunderstandings that will undermine trust in your program.
The other aspect of protection around peer support conversations has to do with the legal precedent Tarasoff, also sometimes referred to as a “duty to warn.” Basically, if someone is perceived to be a threat to themselves or others—if they say they intend to harm an identifiable individual, for example—there may be a legal obligation to protect that person. This is, in my experience, exceedingly rare within the peer support context, but it is important to consider in advance so that your team is properly prepared and knows how to handle such a circumstance if it should arise.
What is far more common is connecting the first responder with outside help. Knowing when and how to refer to a licensed clinician is vital. This is a real skill, to know when and how to do this effectively, and this skill can make the difference between life and death. Peer support must thoroughly know the person seeking help, as well as a suitable professional (whether a psychiatrist, psychologist or other type of licensed clinician) to connect them with. Key concerns here include knowledge of skilled and culturally competent professionals, the maintenance of confidentiality and the availability of those professional resources at the time of need.
Part of what we do at Cordico is facilitate these connections in a convenient and discrete way. Because, as I say, confidentiality is everything.
What do you say to officers working at small departments that are challenged to get peer support going?
Being small can actually be an advantage. It might require a little more work up front, but I’ve seen peer support really succeed in small towns and rural areas.
Just like you would put together a SWAT team at a small department by consolidating resources and working with outside agencies, the same holds true for peer support. There are huge benefits to working with other departments. For one thing, there’s an added layer of separation. If you’re at a 10-person department and you pour your guts out to your peer support team member, 10% of your department knows exactly what you said. That can be a little daunting.
You can also work across disciplines—fire, EMS and police, as well as dispatch. There are obviously some
culture differences that you need to work through, but I’ve seen it work really well too. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
How can leaders help officers overcome reluctance to use peer support? What specific actions can leadership take to build trust in the program?
Peer support teams develop their own reputations, over time and through experience. If people find peer support useful and trustworthy, then word will spread. Peer support teams often engage in many forms of outreach to help spread the word, and this can include informal outreach, short presentations at shift briefings and lengthier trainings. Getting the support of respected personnel within an agency, at as early a stage as possible, if often of enormous value. Enlisting the support of the police officers association or union, if there is one, can also be very helpful. It’s always important to keep in mind, however, that trust is built slowly but destroyed quickly, which is why it is so important to maintain confidentiality to ensure the long-term success of your peer support program.