For more than 16 years, I have had the privilege of working closely with law enforcement. I spent the first nine years of my career as a mental health counselor working alongside law enforcement in the investigation process as a forensic interviewer and counselor for victims of abuse. This relationship allowed me to better understand the unique culture and needs of law enforcement, and I realized officers had unmet mental health concerns.
After leaving that position, I opened a private practice, where I had the opportunity to develop a relationship with Jay Turner, the chief of police for Alexander City, Alabama. As a mental health advocate, he also saw the growing need for mental wellness in his department. To address this need, I collaborated with Turner and developed a mental wellness program for law enforcement. I have implemented this program in three different police departments, and it has been successful in helping improve the mental wellness of law enforcement officers. In this article, I discuss the components of this mental wellness program and share my experience using it.
Barriers to seeking help
Several barriers prevent law enforcement officers from seeking help for mental health concerns. In a study published in JAMA Network Open in 2020, Katelyn Jetelina and colleagues found that officers did not pursue mental health treatment for four reasons:
- They did not know they were experiencing a mental health issue.
- They were concerned about confidentiality.
- They feared being misunderstood by the counselor.
- They worried they would be found unfit for duty because of the stigma around mental health.
Silence in police departments also serves as a significant barrier to officers seeking mental health treatment. In a USA Today article on the Capitol riots published in 2021, Nicholas Wu and Courtney Subramanian discussed how the culture of silence at some police organizations minimizes the experiences of trauma and stress related to the job. Officers are trained to be in control of everything around them, so if they feel they are not in control, they become confused and unsure how to cope. When this happens, they often remain silent rather than ask for help. This mentality contributes to isolation, relationship problems and ultimately the perpetuation of mental health issues.
Counselors working with law enforcement can ensure they are taking steps to remove these barriers by adopting a mental health program designed for law enforcement. This program policy should stress the importance of confidentiality and assure clients that privacy will only be breached when an officer is found to be a danger to oneself or others. Officers and counselors can emphasize that the wellness program is not a fitness-for-duty examination. In my experience, approaching this immediately often leads to the officer relaxing and trusting the process more.
Police departments should also seek a counselor who is sensitive and educated on the culture of law enforcement, which will decrease the likelihood that officers feel misunderstood or judged. It is also crucial counselors encourage law enforcement leadership to promote mental wellness in their departments and reduce the stigma that prevents officers from seeking assistance.
Components of the mental wellness program
Officer wellness should be a priority for every police department, so they can better protect their officers and community members. Counselors can work with police organizations to develop a mental wellness program that contains the following four components, which I have found to be effective in my own work: a formal mental health policy, supportive department leadership, trained and culturally aware mental health professionals and a mental wellness framework.
Create a mental health policy. The Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act of 2017 calls on federal and local law enforcement departments to adopt mental health practices, including regular mental health checks. Central to a mental wellness program is the development of a formal departmental policy. Captain Brian Nanavaty with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department reported in a 2015 article in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin that mental health counselors and law enforcement must work together to create organizational policy on mental health for it to be effective. Agencies can dispel fears of repercussions for seeking mental health by creating a policy that requires or mandates mental health treatment for all officers, not just those who have experienced traumatic incidents. I have found that requiring all officers to attend one therapy session a year decreases mental health stigma within the department and increases the likelihood that officers will seek help on their own.
After five years of using this program in three local police departments, I have found that stigma has decreased significantly, and individuals now talk openly and without shame about making counseling appointments. In addition, those in leadership such as sergeants and lieutenants now recommend officers attend counseling when they openly discuss their struggles.
Work with administrative leadership. For a mental health program to be successful, the leadership in the police department must be supportive and educated about mental health. In a 2016 article published in Police 1, Alethea Olson and Mike Wasilewski modified the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ nine suggested ways to fight mental health stigma to meet the needs of law enforcement. I have found the following three suggestions from that list are crucial for law enforcement leadership to follow:
- Leadership speaks openly about mental health. When leaders promote mental wellness, officers feel safer to seek mental health assistance.
- Leadership educates themselves on mental health. Counselors can provide evidence-based research on the benefits of mental health to leadership so they can help educate their officers about the benefits.
- Leadership displays empathy for those struggling with a mental illness. The police department should align themselves with a counselor in the community who is trained to work with law enforcement. Then, leadership can refer individual officers to this counselor when they need assistance.
I was fortunate enough to work with a police chief who followed these guidelines, but if this does not exist in your community, consider encouraging or discussing these suggestions within leadership in the police department.
Be trained to work with law enforcement. The third piece to designing a mental wellness program for law enforcement is making sure mental health professionals have been trained to work specifically with law enforcement and understand the culture within law enforcement.
Counselors must communicate that counseling is a secure place for police to talk about their experiences and express their needs. It is essential counselors do not immediately address traumatic experiences. Trauma-informed care stresses the importance of establishing coping strategies before processing trauma. For the safety of the officer, you must assess current adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies before discussing potential trauma as well as establish trust with the officer. Trust is foundational to any therapeutic relationship, but even more so with law enforcement.
I have found that during initial counseling sessions, officers may be angry for being told they must come to therapy, nervous about what to expect and hesitant to trust someone outside the police department. Thus, it is essential counselors attend to these feelings, create a safe space and make sure the officer (who is trained to be in control) still feels they have a sense of control in session. To give officers some control in session, you can tell the officer you are not going to force them to talk or stay. If they don’t want to talk, they are free to leave. You can also give them control by allowing them to choose what they want to talk about. I have found this helps ease tension and makes the client more receptive to counseling.
The success of this mental wellness program also depends on the counselor’s familiarity with the culture of law enforcement. I strongly advise counselors to develop working relationships with local law enforcement leaders, which will increase the counselors’ understanding of police culture. You can accomplish this in a variety of ways. You could schedule meetings with law enforcement leadership and ask them to tell you about policing and their department. You can also see if it’s possible to have a meet-and-greet with the officers; I found this approach helpful because officers were able to meet me before their appointment, which helped reduce their anxiety about the process. And do your own research to learn more about the culture. I have found the website police1.com to be a helpful resource to better understand the culture.
Counselors must also be prepared to handle the unique circumstances of law enforcement. This includes being comfortable with officers who may attend session in full uniform and be armed and listening to graphic details of events experienced while on duty, such as car accidents, homicides, suicides and sexual assaults. Giving the officer a safe and trauma-informed space to discuss these graphic details is important, but as the counselor, you need to be prepared to hear these details and mitigate the potential for your own vicarious trauma.
Counselors must also be able to tolerate a morbid sense of humor, which is a common coping strategy for officers during traumatic events and a way of bonding with each other while on duty. Officers are often hesitant to admit they have a morbid sense of humor for fear of being judged, so it is important counselors normalize this experience for officers and avoid passing judgment for this coping and bonding strategy.
Use a mental wellness program framework. This wellness model is a simple guiding framework that can be modified according to the counselor’s approach and the needs of the officer. Counselors can use the Indivisible Self model as a guide for the wellness program. This model includes five factors: the essential self (the spirituality of the person, their cultural identity and self-care practices), the creative self (a person’s emotions, control, humor and thought patterns), the coping self (a person’s stress management, self-worth and leisure activities), the social self (a person’s friendships and ability to love) and the physical self (a person’s exercise habits, sleep patterns and nutrition).
I often find the Indivisible Self model to be a safe and noninvasive starting point for the officer to evaluate their current wellness because the officer is in control of how much they share about themselves. Here is a process counselors can follow when using the Indivisible Self model with law enforcement:
- The counselor provides psychoeducation on the Indivisible Self model.
- The counselor reviews the benefits of living a healthy lifestyle.
- The counselor asks the officer to evaluate each individual area of wellness within the model. This process helps the officer gain self-awareness and an awareness of both their strengths and areas of change.
- The counselor helps the officer create goals for improvement in some wellness areas. The goals should be realistic for the officer and the demands of their career.
- The counselor provides psychoeducation on the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) so they can recognize them in themselves or their fellow officers. Moreover, counselors should educate officers on how to practice self-care and prevent the development of PTSD, burnout and other mental health concerns.
The discussion of the Indivisible Self model, in my experience, often increases the chance that the officer wants to return to counseling. You have created a trusting relationship and given the officer control, and now they feel safe enough to make changes in their lives.
It is also important that counselors offer interventions that are practical, easily understood and approachable. Counselors who have worked with law enforcement have found mindfulness techniques, deep breathing and meditation to be effective in decreasing anxiety and stress, and ultimately increasing resilience.
In the Counseling Today article “Putting first responders’ mental health on the front lines,” Lindsey Phillips discusses how law enforcement and other first responders often find the transition from home to work challenging. I have also found this to be true in my work with law enforcement. If officers are not able to transition from work to home successfully, then they may experience relationship problems. Counselors should help officers make a plan that will help them effectively transition home.
Having a mental wellness program and mandating that law enforcement attend one wellness session with a mental health professional opens the door for counselors to encourage officers to be self-aware and prioritize self-care. Some officers may want to continue counseling, and then clinicians can use practices that will address the officer’s specific mental health concern. The department will not be informed if the officer returns for additional sessions, as long as they are not at risk of harming themselves or others.
To summarize, here are some things counselors need to keep in mind when implementing a mental wellness program for law enforcement:
- Learn about the culture of law enforcement.
- Develop relationships with leadership within the police department.
- Teach administration about mental health and the benefits of mental wellness.
- Work with leadership to develop a formal policy for the mental wellness program.
- Take time to meet officers before implementing the program.
- Do not force officers to talk or stay in their initial session.
- Do not judge the officer for a morbid sense of humor.
- Avoid discussing traumatic experiences in the initial session.
Traditionally, law enforcement is a helping profession, one that involves placing the needs of others above oneself. In doing so, officers often neglect their own physical, mental and emotional health. Therefore, officer wellness must be a priority for every department to protect their officers and community members. Counselors can use the steps discussed in this article to implement a mental wellness program in their community and help law enforcement begin to prioritize their mental health moving forward.
Editor’s Note: Parts of this article were included in “Building resilience in law enforcement through a mental wellness program” published in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology (2022). This article has been revised to include original content for Counseling Today.
Margaret Taylor is a professor of practice and coordinator of the clinical mental health program at Auburn University. She is also a licensed professional counselor supervisor and owns a private practice in Alexander City, Alabama, where she specializes in treating first responders and trauma. Contact her at email@example.com.
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