Better Served: The State of Law Enforcement Wellness
Nicholas Greco, M.S., BCETS, CATSM, FAAETS
As I sit in my office writing this, I reflect upon the trainings I’ve had the honor and privilege to conduct this year across this nation. It is a year, once again, with challenges: a pandemic, political division and public rancor. Despite all that, I am proud to train law enforcement and continue to be inspired by the professionalism I see despite all the challenges. Negativity from the public, the press and often even from inside their own agencies, won’t stand in the way. Law enforcement officers do difficult work around the clock the best they can.
The officers I work with inspire me and I never want to see any one of them injured. But I’m not naïve. The job is dangerous. Some danger is unavoidable. But some dangers we could be doing a better job to ward against. This is where I try to focus my attention.
More We Can Do
Ask almost any cop how they’re doing, and they will say fine. The other “F” word, as I have called it. We know and they know that in many cases they are not doing well, they are not fine, but somehow it’s safer to pretend stress, trauma and depression don’t exist. These issues are swept under the rug in the hope they will go away.
That is, until an officer takes their own life. Then the department comes together to show collective love for that officer, precisely once it’s too late. Officers will then be subjected to three-minute roll call discussions by the EAP. They will receive pamphlets with phone numbers and websites to help. They will be told “you are not alone” and be subjected to tear-jerking videos.
The lack of leadership and courage of this approach is palpable to the rank and file. They know that, despite good intentions, this too shall pass. They will go back to the job, back to the stress and trauma and depression they may be facing, as if nothing has changed.
Don’t get me wrong. There are departments doing exemplary work, making a difference in a proactive way. There are furthermore organizations, such as Survivors of Blue Suicide, Protecting the Guardian, Serve and Protect, and COPLINE, doing tireless work to help officers and agencies to be well. To those organizations and departments, I salute you.
Let’s put the challenge into some perspective. The resources exist to help you in your journey. We know the scope of the problem. Your department is not immune (no department is). Suicide doesn’t have to continue to keep pace with, or exceed, LODD deaths. It’s time to respect our officers enough to truly care for their health and wellbeing. Remember: No one is ever truly “just fine.”
Heart attack is another source of preventable death we must address. Physical and mental health go hand in hand. If I have a person who is depressed, they, by definition, will exhibit five to nine of the following symptoms over a two-week period: sleep difficulties, sleeping too much or not enough, low interest in life, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, low energy, poor concentration, appetite changes, agitation or slowed movements, and suicidal thoughts.
These issues are swept under the rug in the hope they will go away
If this individual has high blood pressure or diabetes—two fairly common conditions in this country—they are at serious risk. Take the diabetic. If they are depressed, they won’t want to exercise because they almost certainly have low energy. They may be overindulging in food or drink, and they almost certainly aren’t sleeping well. The person’s physical wellness suffers as well as their emotional health.
If we have an individual who is consistently stressed, overworked and malnourished, they are subject to a cascade of life-threatening problems, including high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. Once again, physical and mental fitness are inextricable and must finally be treated as such. As we face this epidemic of poor heart health, it’s not enough to isolate it as a purely physical challenge. It’s clearly much more than that. Focusing on the physiology of heart attack without considering equally the psychological impacts of law enforcement would be a fool’s errand.
Let’s not ignore COVID-19. At the time of this writing, 322 officers have died from COVID, according to ODMP. The total killed to date since the beginning of the pandemic, according to FOP, is 836. Many of these deaths were likely not preventable, at least in the short term. Many occurred prior to vaccinations and other effective treatments being available and known. But what about now?
Health should never be political. But I will say this, please make sure you and your department are getting the most accurate information about this terrible virus. Don’t rely on YouTube, obscure websites, social media or politically charged media. Make the choices to safeguard your health and wellness based on objective research and judgment. Ignore celebrities! Instead, think like a cop: Trust but verify. Prevention beats treatment all day long, and dying from COVID is a terrible way to go.
Being a law enforcement officer is inherently dangerous. That’s why it’s so critical that we as individuals and collectively do what we can to mitigate threats within our sphere of influence. Suicide, heart attack and COVID are all areas where we can make big strides in reducing unnecessary death and suffering in the coming year.
It is an honor and privilege for me to train officers. No matter the size of the department or class, I am always humbled to play a small role in providing new knowledge. Thank all of you for the work you do each day. Until next time, stay safe.