Officer Wellness in the 21st Century Article Featured in FBI National Academy Associates Magazine
Cordico CEO, Dr. David Black, wrote the article “Officer Wellness in the 21st Century” that was featured in April / June 2020 Associate, the Magazine of the FBI National Academy Associates. The digital version of the magazine can be found here. The text of the article is listed below.
As law enforcement leaders, are we are doing enough to train, protect, and prepare our officers for what they will encounter during their service? Law enforcement professionals serve on the front lines of humanity’s worst-case events, and are exposed to an average of 188 critical incidents during their careers. Nearly 70 percent of officers report that stressful work experiences have caused ongoing emotional issues, leading to a wide range of consequences including sleep difficulties, relationship problems, and thoughts of suicide. In 2019, law enforcement officers had a 475 percent greater chance of dying by suicide than by gunfire from another person.
One critical aspect of the challenge is summed up by this statistic: 90 percent of officers report that the culture of law enforcement, in and of itself, carries a stigma that prevents officers from seeking help for emotional and behavioral issues. In a profession that deals with extreme stress and trauma routinely, how long can we expect our officers, and the next generation of officers, to successfully survive their careers unless we continue taking bold steps to make the health, safety, and wellness of the heroes who protect our communities an ongoing top priority? As law enforcement leaders, we must continually challenge the profession to do a better job protecting and preserving the lives of our men and women who serve and protect our communities and our loved ones.
Proactive vs. Reactive and the Scope of Officer Wellness
Law enforcement has transitioned towards more proactive approaches to officer wellness in recent years. In the past, much less emphasis was placed on officer wellness overall, with academy training on wellness typically restricted to physical fitness, support for officers following critical incidents often limited to group debriefs, and little, if any, proactive psychological wellness support was offered to most officers. Now, officer wellness is understood to encompass emotional resilience, psychological health (including depression, posttraumatic stress, alcohol and substance abuse, and suicide prevention), relationship success (including marriage and family support), as well as other key issues affecting officer stress and wellness (financial fitness, retirement preparation), and more. This broadening of focus has coincided with a more proactive (as opposed to reactive), preventative, and strategic approach to strengthening officer wellness. In addition, the broadening scope has coincided with a growing field of key stakeholders united in their shared commitments to support officer wellness (including law enforcement leaders, associations, peer support teams, and spousal support groups).
Confidential On-Demand Access
One key question is: Will officers utilize proactive resources? When asked what is most important to them in evaluating the value of emotional wellness resources, line-level officers frequently select 1) confidentiality of services, and 2) 24/7 access to services, in that order of priority. It is important to understand and respect the fact that the large majority of officers will not utilize psychologists and related services if use of those services does not come with a promise of confidentiality, or if the reputation of those services has been compromised. Additionally, officers tend to place a premium on 24/7 access to services due to their shift work, the fact that law enforcement culture prides itself on responding whenever needed, and the culture of stigma leading officers to postpone seeking support, often until their needs are urgent. We all need to do more to encourage proactive utilization of services, while also ensuring that the strong desire for 24/7 support is honored and provided.
Quality of Resources and Therapist Vetting
Many officer wellness issues (including depression, posttraumatic stress, relationship problems, and suicidal thoughts) are highly treatable when skilled therapists are involved. It is often the case that an officer will approach therapy with reluctance and hesitation coupled with an urgent need for support. Therefore, it is essential that we take proactive steps to ensure that the opportunity to help a hero is not squandered due to a lack of skilled and culturally competent resources. Most agencies lack sufficient access to culturally competent law enforcement therapists, unfortunately, but significant progress is being made identifying skilled therapists motivated to serve law enforcement, training these therapists to become culturally competent, and ensuring that officers know how to reach these select therapists in times of need. If your agency lacks access to skilled law enforcement therapists, experience demonstrates that four factors should be weighed when vetting therapists to support officers: 1) therapist quality; 2) cultural competence; 3) commitment to confidentiality and discretion; and, 4) availability and responsiveness when needed.
Peer Support Training
Many agencies have formed, trained, and established protocols for peer support teams in recent years, but a large percentage of agencies still lack access to peer support. As specially trained members of the law enforcement family, peer support teams provide their fellow officers with support during times of personal and professional crises. Peer support teams respond to crisis events to support officers, but also work to anticipate needs before crises occur and help provide proactive and preventative support. Specially trained peers are uniquely positioned to help their fellow officers 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. Additionally, skilled peer support teams often function as a “barometer” within their agency, anticipating needs, providing support, and assisting with confidential referrals to culturally-competent therapists.
The Role of COVID-19 and Other High-Impact Events
Law enforcement must remain proactive and prepared for high-impact events, extended crises, and other incidents that can substantially undermine the health and safety of officers. In the beginning of 2020, the “novel coronavirus,” now known as COVID-19, changed our world. Law enforcement professionals have dealt with the impact of COVID-19 in their personal lives and their professional lives, in addition to the crossover effects between the two. Research indicates that 92 percent of cities reported an inadequate supply of PPE for their first responders, many are fearful of bringing the virus home to their loved ones, and COVID-19 frontline workers experience significantly increased levels of distress, depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Research further indicates that quarantined individuals experience heightened distress and alcohol abuse, thereby creating greater risk for law enforcement. In summary, COVID-19 has substantially increased the stressors faced by law enforcement, and serves to reinforce officer safety, wellness, and resilience as the highest priorities for the future of the profession.
Future Generations and Future Directions
Research indicates clearly that the younger generations of officers who have entered the profession over the past decade, and who will be entering the profession in the years to come, are more stress vulnerable than earlier generations. Couple this reality with the fact that the stressors, pressures, and demands placed upon law enforcement show no sign of abating (quite the opposite). We can anticipate that not only will officer wellness remain a top priority in the years to come, but agencies who prioritize officer wellness will enjoy a distinct advantage in recruiting and retaining top personnel in the competitive market. Technology will also play a larger role over time, as many departments provide their officers with agency-customized wellness apps, law enforcement therapists provide therapy increasingly via remote video (including EMDR treatment for posttraumatic stress), and the younger generation of officers view technology as a safer, easier, and more reliable point of access for engaging high-quality wellness support. Additionally, greater emphasis will be placed on officer wellness tools, articles, training events, and services, as these assorted resources become more accepted, normalized, and expected as central aspects of officer safety and essential elements of law enforcement’s greater mission to serve and protect.
As law enforcement leaders, we are in the midst of historic shifts towards more proactive, preventive, and strategic approaches to strengthening officer wellness that continue to gain momentum. More and more stakeholders are uniting in their shared support of officer wellness, while demand for officer wellness support continues to grow. These changes are welcome, as we lost 220 officers to suicide in 2019, and the pressures placed upon our law enforcement professionals continue to grow with no end in sight. It is up to us, as responsible leaders, to do all we can to support, protect, and assist the men and women who serve in the profession. Lives depend upon it, and the future of the profession depends upon it.
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