The State of Officer Wellness Through the Eyes of a Cop
Editor’s Note: This was written in January 2020 and is published this month. The state of officer wellness has been impacted even more by the events of this year.
What is the current state of officer wellness nationwide? How bad is it really? With increased attention and research on this topic, I still hear many law enforcement leaders asking these questions. They are trying to understand the severity and scope of the issue, and how much is their responsibility to care for the individual officer struggling in some way. Simply stated, officer wellness is at crisis levels, far worse than our current leaders can imagine. There is so much more that can and should be done within agencies to both support their officers reactively, and equip them proactively.
My thoughts on this topic come from a researched assessment and observations based on my experience as a sworn officer, full-time peer support coordinator, resilience, wellness, and peer support trainer, wellness program consultant, and chaplain program leader. Also, from my close partnerships with first responder crisis lines, trauma retreats, line of duty death support organizations, and family support programs. The increase in awareness and research has only highlighted officer wellness at the crisis levels they have likely always been at. The current research is only beginning to scratch the surface of what I have seen and experienced in my fellow brothers and sisters across the country. I have witnessed agonizing pain in many officers and their family members, that our leaders will not see because of their position, or hear specific details because of confidential communication.
There are trauma retreats with long waitlists, crisis lines flooded with phone calls, therapists with full practices, staggering numbers of officers exhibiting mental health symptoms, or admitting to thoughts of suicide and substance abuse, as well as tragic cardiovascular disease rates, and significant relational challenges. Officers have mastered the ability to suppress these issues publicly, and still perform exceptionally and heroically on a daily basis. After studying many surveys and reflecting on my personal experience with reactive support efforts, it is obvious that the impacts of trauma and occupational stressors are widespread. However, it is extremely rare for officers to proactively address these known challenges or voluntarily seek help when it is needed. Nearly all reactive support resources are utilized when the officer’s situation has reached its breaking point, and the officer faces losing either his/her job, health, family members, or even life itself.
The following short story epitomizes my experience in offering reactive support to officers at their breaking point. My hope is that our profession can move towards addressing these issues proactively, instead of offering only reactive solutions.
Upstream/Downstream, by Donald D. Ardell, Ph.d (edited version)
“Many years ago, there was a fishing village on a mighty river. From time to time, a tragedy would come their way; someone would come down the river in the water yelling for help. Every time, members of the village would attempt to rescue the person. While many were saved, many were also lost to the river.
As the years went by, more and more people came drifting down the river needing help. This began to trouble the villagers. So, they came together as a community and discussed what they should do, and decided more could be done to save these “river people.”
Rescue teams were trained and organized so they could be on alert for people in the river. As a result, they were able to save a greater percentage of the “river people” – but not all of them. “What more can be done?” they asked. Their answer was to make more improvements to the rescue system. They hired rescue specialists, and even built an emergency hospital staffed with highly-trained medical personnel. While it was costly to run and operate, they felt it was the right thing to do. Lives were at stake.
Only a few villagers over the years questioned why so many were falling victim to the river. Most of the locals were too busy with the frequent rescue efforts. Finally, one day a man went upstream to determine what was causing these tragedies. Why were so many people needing to be rescued? How many had been lost, or severely injured? How many lives could have been saved?”
The Upstream/Downstream story highlights the importance of rescuing those who need help, while also expanding our awareness to understand why help is so frequently needed. By expanding our understanding of predictable risks, we can more effectively engage in preparation, protection, and prevention.
The first step to improving wellness in every agency is to shore up effective, reactive support for officers and their families. The next step is to start addressing the challenges “upstream.” I am passionate about seeing agencies build up a proactive culture of wellness. This takes time and commitment. Cultures do not change overnight. These wellness programs need to be established through the eyes of a cop, otherwise they typically miss the mark. The most important question to be asked while developing any aspect of a wellness program; will the officers feel supported by it?
Most officers quickly embrace a “new normal,” which is essentially just surviving. They are like a “house of cards,” built on an unstable foundation, just one personal or professional crisis away from their breaking point. Yet they do not see it, believe it, or ever talk about it. Since the majority of these issues appear to be trauma and occupational stress related, it is the responsibility of our agency leaders to do so much more, and not just put it on the backs of the individual officers who are struggling.
Historically, mentorship or eldership was a cornerstone in warrior cultures, and has been lost over the years. Experienced warriors modeled the wisdom they had gained for the young warriors, to help prepare them for how such a calling would impact every area of their lives. Warriors were shown how to “live well” in the midst of exposure to unimaginable trauma that the human brain was not designed to handle. There is a very small percentage in law enforcement who are “living well.” Most are just surviving, or trying to push through their present breaking point, and not appear weak or even fazed by their situation. We owe it to them to change the culture and show them that it is possible to “live well.” This will be achieved by compassionate, credible insiders who have “lived well” in the warrior culture, and are willing to say, “follow me.”
“When we are no longer able to change a situation…… we are challenged to change ourselves.” – Victor Frankl.
While we cannot change the nature of the work and the impact it will have on us, we can change individually and organizationally how we prepare for it and respond to it.