Mental Wellness Check-ins: What They Are and How They Help
Marie Ridgeway, MSW, LICSW, RYT
Imagine you have a car you depend on but don’t take care of. You fill it with gas and drive it every day, but never change the oil, rotate the tires, or add coolant or other fluids. When the “check engine” light illuminates, you just keep driving. More warning lights come on, but you ignore them. After all, the car has been going for years without any serious problems. Why shouldn’t it keep running forever?
Many of us treat our minds the same way. We use them every day, fill them up with experiences (both positive and negative) but otherwise take them for granted. We actively ignore problem thoughts and behaviors, assuming they’ll just go way or somehow take care of themselves. Unfortunately, like a poorly maintained car, neglecting your mental health can result in an eventual breakdown.
First responders deal with difficult situations almost every day. They see accidents, experience violence and witness some of the worst humanity has to offer. All those images, incidents and experiences can get internalized in their minds as trauma.
Unfortunately, the stigma against seeking help for this trauma can cause the problems to multiply. Many in public safety turn to alcohol or other substances to dull the pain. Some (as many as one in four) consider taking their own lives. In an effort to improve mental health, reduce negative perceptions of treatment and break the cycle neglect, my practice, Ridgeway & Associates, has put together a program that combines mandatory mental wellness check-ins and optional follow-up therapy sessions in a package for law enforcement agencies.
Mental Wellness Check-in Program
Going back to the hypothetical car mentioned earlier, mental wellness check-ins are a lot like checking fluids and rotating tires. They provide an opportunity for every person in a law enforcement agency to literally check in with a therapist with no pressure or expectations—at no cost to the participant and with complete confidentiality.
If everything is fine … great! The person has satisfied the requirement and nothing else has to happen until next year. If the participant decides they could benefit from therapy for any reason, they can come back for follow-up counseling (which is also completely confidential). Also, if the person doing the check-in has unresolved trauma or other issues but is hesitant to commit to therapy, at least they’ll have established a relationship with a therapist and know someone they can call when they eventually decide to seek help.
What Is a Check-in?
Some of the agencies we work with refer to mental wellness check-ins as “a checkup from the neck up.” A check-in is an annual, mandatory 50-minute session in which someone sits down and talks with a therapist.
Sounds straightforward, right? In the case of law enforcement employees, it’s a private conversation between a public safety professional and a mental health professional who really understands public safety and the challenges that go along with the profession. Since they’re mandatory, check-ins ensure every department employee has a chance, at least once a year, to talk about any problems they might be experiencing and determine whether they might need additional help.
The primary goal of mental wellness check-ins is to provide public safety employees with increased quality of life as well as tools to manage their response to stress and trauma. Check-ins help prevent suicide by building positive relationships between law enforcement personnel and therapists certified to work with them so that officers understand there is always someone who knows how to help and something that can be done when stressors become overwhelming. These relationships might pay off now or in the future, depending on each person’s frame of mind and individual needs.
What a Check-in Isn’t
Imagine going to your dentist for a checkup and saying, “Hey, while I’m here, can I get a quick root canal?” That’s not how it works — you’ll need to make a separate appointment (or multiple appointments) for that. Dental checkups and mental wellness check-ins are both about prevention, not treatment.
A mental wellness check-in is not a therapy session. During the 50 minutes, the therapist will not evaluate you or diagnose you. But that’s not to say that a check-in can’t lead to therapy. In fact, between 10% and 20% of the people who come to us for annual check-ins end up scheduling additional sessions. Like the check-ins, the cost of those additional voluntary counseling sessions are included in the contract our practice has with the agency so that you can continue to see the person you completed your check-in with, if you choose. They’re also protected by the same umbrella of confidentiality. (Read more about this below.)
What Do We Talk About?
With mandatory annual check-ins, the baseline requirement is that the employee make an appointment and show up at the allotted time. There is no expectation of what a participant shares, nor that they stay the full 50 minutes, but nearly everyone does feel comfortable enough to stay and to share.
In a typical check-in, the therapist will take time to get a general idea of how that individual is doing. If the individual is open to some coaching, the therapist may also review some of the ways people in law enforcement can maintain mental wellness, including:
- Physical factors like sleep, exercise, hydration and nutrition
- Mental factors like mindset, work-life balance and coping strategies
- Social factors like support structures (family, friends, workplace and coworkers) and group activities
- How stress accumulation can impact a person’s physical well-being, mood and cognitive function
- The benefits of receiving professional mental health counselling and therapy and how it works
If the person participating in the check-in doesn’t want to talk about any of this stuff, they might tell the therapist about last weekend’s fishing trip, or their lake house they love to get away to. Most participants are interested in talking about wellness and their unique situation. The important thing is the visit, the touchpoint and the relationship. As therapists, the one takeaway we want every public safety employee to leave with is that we’re here for them when they need us — today, tomorrow, 24/7, and on into the future.
Mental wellness check-ins are not therapy, but the rules of confidentiality that apply to therapy sessions also apply to check-ins. We’ve all heard the saying, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” … and the same goes for check-ins. Nothing that is said during a check-in or subsequent therapy session is reported back to the employer. No diagnosis is made, and because the practice bills the agency directly (and “in bulk”) there is no record of the check-in or therapy sessions on the employee’s medical or insurance history.
With mandatory check-ins, your agency will see your name on an invoice to indicate that you attended. That’s it. If you opt for further therapy sessions (which are included in the program contract), your employer will eventually know that somebody in the department received treatment, but they won’t know who or what issues were addressed.
The sole exceptions to this confidentiality rule are situations where the person attending the session is likely to cause immediate harm to themselves or others, or if the person discloses abuse of a child or vulnerable adult. Those notifications are mandated by law and ethical codes and are made to the appropriate law enforcement entity — not necessarily the employer.
Who Needs a Check-in?
Some might assume that only sworn law enforcement officers need to get check-ins, but we advocate for a different approach. Non-sworn employees of law enforcement agencies share in the stress and trauma their sworn colleagues experience. Dispatchers, crime scene technicians and even administrative workers also feel the impact. Because of this, we recommend that all employees — from the chief on down — commit to annual check-ins. However, it is common that only sworn personnel are required to do a check in while it is a voluntary benefit for other LE staff.
Feeling the Benefits: The Burnsville Police Department
Sergeant Dave Zerwas of the Burnsville (Minn.) Police Department knows firsthand how helpful the check-in/therapy program has been at his agency. “We started our program four or five years ago with Marie Ridgeway’s practice,” he says. “I’ve used her myself, and it’s benefitted me personally. I know the program is being utilized because I pay the bills when they come.”
According to Zerwas, the BPD wanted to be more proactive regarding mental wellness. “We’re investing in the front end to prevent either losing people or having them spiral and have some type of incident on the job, which is a very real danger,” he says. “If somebody’s not hitting on all cylinders, they’re more likely to have a use-of-force complaint, make a bad decision on the street, or have an accident because maybe they’re not sleeping or focused.”
Sgt. Zerwas says keeping his employees in the best physical and mental shape helps prevent losing them to medical retirement or termination. It also reduces the risk of officers creating problems for both the agency and themselves.
“Several of my closest friends have, over the last several years, been involved in officer-involved shootings,” Sgt. Zerwas says. “These are all great cops, all of whom I admire. When they had their shootings, they openly admitted to me they were struggling. When you don’t get help after something so traumatic, you suffer and your family suffers. But by dealing with those strong emotions, they were able to get their lives and families back in order and feel whole again.”
Feeling the Benefits: Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office
Meliene Fontaine-Laska is the human resources director for the Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office, headquartered in Brainerd, Minn. Before adding the check-ins and therapy sessions as an official program, the agency already had a peer support structure in place. Still, the leadership believed more could and should be done.
“When we first developed our program here, we took a long, hard look at why we felt we needed this,” Fontaine-Laska says. “We had a few leaders on our team who had incredible passion for officer wellness. Part of the reason is that they themselves had some baggage that they’d been carrying around for 25 to 30 years—images they couldn’t get out of their minds. So, we contacted Marie and said, ‘How do we do this?’”
The main focus, according to Fontaine-Laska, was on quality of life for all employees: “Who do you really have to talk with to filter those things out of your work life and still have an enjoyable home life?”
Fontaine-Laska likened on-the-job trauma to a cup that each person carries around, which eventually fills up to the point of overflowing. “And if you can’t empty that cup,” she says, “it becomes too overwhelming and you’re just numb to what’s going on out there. And then something else happens and you become very ineffective as an officer.”
With check-ins and follow-up therapy sessions, she adds, the trauma is still there. It’s just more manageable.
“Every day in county government, we put people in harm’s way,” Fontaine-Laska says. “This program is our way of making sure our officers deal with the ongoing, day-to-day trauma that builds up over time, so at the end of the day or the end of the week they can go home and have a satisfying life.”
Summing It Up
In many ways, we as a nation have normalized indifference to mental health. Fortunately, this is changing. While the old “ignore it and it will go away” attitudes still persist in some places, many public safety departments are recognizing the importance of proactive mental wellness to keep their employees healthy and happy (and on the job). For public safety, a specialized approach with specialized clinicians who are culturally competent is key.
We’ve found that an “all of the above” approach is best. Employee assistance programs can be great. Peer support structures can be invaluable. Innovative technologies can deliver anonymous help 24/7. And mental wellness check-ins are the perfect tool to provide mental health maintenance and encourage public safety employees to seek therapy when they need it.