My days at the police academy were a lot of fun. I can remember the first day like it was yesterday.  We all showed up eager to learn, got our room assignments, did our physical tests and greeted each other in the gymnasium.  Most of the cadets knew each other and were from the same school.  I was the only one from my school, but it didn’t take long to make friends with everyone else.

Our day consisted of learning all the important skills police officers need to know on the job.  We spent hours at the gun range, participated in defensive tactics, drove the squad cars like we stole them, pepper sprayed each other, and went through numerous different scenario-type trainings.  After the day was done, we made sure to head to the local establishments to have a few adult beverages and share our dreams of where this great law enforcement career would (hopefully) take us.

Looking back, I noticed the instructors did a great job preparing us for the on-duty portion of job and how to maintain officer safety.  However, they didn’t speak much about how to handle the job, mentally, off-duty and the toll it could take on us. Law enforcement, in particular, is a very high stress job that will expose you to a lot of things most people should never experience. For the longest time, this career had a “tough guy” stigma attached to it. Sharing your thoughts and feelings about calls that you have been on was considered weird and taboo.

The Officer Down Memorial website (https://www.odmp.org/), reveals 62 police officers were killed by felonious assault, gunfire, vehicle pursuit and vehicle assault in 2019.   According to B.L.U.E. Help (https://bluehelp.org/) a website that provides statistics on suicides by police officers, 197 police officers took their own life in 2019.  That means for every officer feloniously killed in the line of duty approximately three more take their own life by suicide.  This is inexcusable. We need to do a better job of taking care of ourselves and our fellow brothers and sisters in blue.

During my tenure, I was lucky enough to participate in a peer support group for first responders.  This was a great way to debrief after a call that exposed responders to trauma.  I believe these types of programs were setup for the right reasons and encouraged responders to share their feelings and how they were impacted.

According to Mary Wolf, a licensed counselor, with decades of experience: “It is time to normalize asking for help.  Let’s make it ok to reach out at the first sign of distress instead of suffering in silence for years.  Let’s make learning about common reactions and stressors of police work part of training from day one. Let’s make emotional health a real priority in an industry that has put it last.”

 A Call to Action

Let’s teach the skills needed to holistically be a police officer:  Coping with chronic and acute stress, utilizing exercise as the natural anti-depressant that it is, supporting your colleagues, and asking what you need to effectively do this important work.

Let’s talk about the difficulty of domestic violence calls, tragic accidents, and threats to your safety.

Let’s make it alright to bring your whole self to the job.

Let’s talk openly about what brings out our fears, anger, frustrations and overwhelming sadness in how some people treat their children.

Let’s make resources easy to access so everyone knows what to do when a challenge arises whether it’s personal or professional.

Let’s make it ok to talk about critical incidents and the affects it is having on us.

Let’s make it the norm to talk with supervisors, peers, and professionals about how we are feeling and how we are Really doing.

Let’s show some vulnerability and humanity in our work.

Trust and connection are key needs in order to sustain a meaningful career.  Everyone needs an objective and confidential person that they can confide in, where they can be themselves, and not have to pretend to be happy.

If you are experiencing depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, or suicidal thoughts, a licensed mental health professional is your best avenue.  You need a mental health provider who understands the unique aspects of police culture.  Search for a list of mental health professionals who are covered by your health insurance.  Many plans provide mental health counsellors for a small or no co-pay. You might have to make a few calls to find someone who understands the first responder world.

Key Takeaways

Suicide, depression, and other mental health issues are a silent killer among public safety personnel. We need to take better care of ourselves not just physically, but mentally as well.  We need to make sure we seek additional support if we are having a hard time in our career fields.  If you find you’re having disturbing thoughts that won’t leave after a high stress call, understand you’re having a normal reaction to an abnormal circumstance.  We need to make sure we’re having a check-up from the neck up.

 Everyday Life

Our mental health is extremely important.  We need to make sure we have a clear mind and are getting things off our chest.  Gone are the days of bottling everything up until they spill over.  Find a healthy way to cope with the stresses of the job.

Remember, the consequences of not getting help impacts you as well as others around you.

Discussions

  1. Discuss healthy strategies for coping with the stresses of the job.
  2. Discuss what plan your agency has to assist public safety personnel having a difficult time dealing with the stresses of the job.
  3. Discuss ways your agency could implement a peer support group for your public safety partners, including what training should be provided.

 

About the authors

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Certified Master Instructor for Situational Awareness Matters and has a passion for training his clients on this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.  He is the founder and CEO for Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization located in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  He can be reached at [email protected].

Contributor

Mary Wolf, MS, LPC-MH, BCC. President of Veritee Partners LLC. Contact her via email at [email protected] or connect with her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/mary-wolf-veritee/.