I created a vicious trauma-approach that puts the law enforcement officer (LEO) at the center of issues related to well-being and suicide prevention. I care deeply about preventing suicide in LEOs as my father, a sergeant, died by suicide after he retired. I found meaning in his suicide by focusing on mental health, wellness and resilience in first responders.
Vicarious-trauma informed practices are policies that focus on ways to lessen burnout, compassion fatigue, empathic distress, moral injury and secondary trauma. Awareness comes down to education and training from the top down in all agencies and departments. A vicarious trauma-informed approach involves educating command staff, supervisors, LEOS and families about the impact of traumatic stress, prolonged grief and trauma.
LEOs are struggling with insomnia, depression, marital issues and the public’s disdain. Their psychological safety and wellness are paramount to their well-being. We need to take a proactive approach being that they are resigning or taking early retirement. Whether we focus on stress inoculation and go upstream or recognize that depression is a bigger issue in LEOs than PTSD, something needs to be done now to address the psychological risks they are facing every single day. Although departments are focusing on the psychological risks of their officers, there are still major issues with confidentiality and stigma. No officer wants to be labelled weak.
The stigma of seeking help
In August 2023, a survey was launched at the FOP Biennial National Conference. Drew and Martin (2023) focused on U.S. law enforcement and mental health. Based on this national study, over 90% of officers perceive stigma as negatively influencing help-seeking behavior. What the study found is that when officers access mental health services, levels of stigma are extremely high. The most common agency provided accessed service for LEOs is an online training/program for mental and physical self-care.
The second most common agency service is suicide awareness and prevention education/ program. The third most common service is peer support. Other provided services include in-person training/program for mental and physical care, EAP, formal or informal debriefings and mental health first-aid training. The least access services agencies provided were chaplaincy services. Other least used services were a substance use program, annual mental health first aid, or annual mental health or wellness check-ups. The number 1 ranking accessed external service is seeing a general practitioner. My father died by suicide only a few weeks before seeing his GP.
My mother was a policewoman. I appreciate that the study highlights that increased attention needs to focus on female officers. This is due to their high rates of psychological distress. Policewomen do access wellness services such as peer support and seeing mental health professionals and they were more likely than male police officers to find them effective.
The study recommends that departments adopt a non-punitive response to members who ask for help. Supervisors can encourage LEOs to continually gather information on managing their mental health and make wellness services an urgent priority. Almost one-quarter of officers who responded to the survey were experiencing troubling levels of psychological distress, regardless of agency size.
At high risk for mental health issues
Several studies show that LEOs have a higher-than-average risk for mental health issues that impact their work and personal life. Their well-being suffers as they become cynical, have sleep problems or lose motivation to do their job and wind up resigning or retiring early. Being that their mental health issues are impacting their wellbeing, their level of functioning is impacted. They do not want to share their feelings and they may avoid relationships. They need ways to manage their stressful experiences.
The Fraternal Order of Police survey of 8000 active and retired sworn officers (Fraternal Order of Police (FOP, n.d., Martin, 2018) found that stressful experiences bring about unresolved emotional issues in LEOs that lead to insomnia, withdrawal, agitation, recurring and unwanted memories, a change in view of their job and the future. Stressful experiences causes increased jumpiness or watchfulness, and relationship problems. Several key findings of the survey: 90% reported stigma an obstacle to get treatment; 79% reported critical stress at various points in their career; over 90% reported that the public and the profession itself are unaware of that a LEOs critical stress is a problem; and 73% reported the most helpful treatment is peer support.
Here is the study if you would like to learn more about wellbeing in law enforcement officer: Drew, J.M. & Martin, S. (2023). Mental health and wellness initiatives supporting United States law enforcement personnel: The current state-of-play, Journal of Community Safety & Well-being, 8(1), S12-22.
Barbara is a leading authority and best-selling author on managing burnout, secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma. As a nationally recognized keynote speaker, she motivates audiences to build their resilience and create work-life balance. Her programs help leaders and teams manage workplace chronic stressors and get over burnout at work.
Barbara's newest book, "But I Didn't Say Goodbye: Helping Families After a Suicide", is available now on Amazon - https://amzn.to/2FwS6JI
• Three weeks prior to giving birth to triplets, her father died by suicide. Her story was featured in the Emmy award winning documentary, Fatal Mistakes, Families Shattered by Suicide narrated by Mariette Hartley. Many employees are grieving personal loss. She offers programs for leaders on lost productivity and performance while managing grief at work.
• As a sought-after keynote speaker who has presented to over 500 groups since 1991, including corporations, state and national associations and non-profit organizations, Barbara offers work-life balance strategies for leaders to implement right away. With clarity and humor, her speaking engagements are designed to give audiences powerful and practical strategies of work-life balance, wellbeing, and self-care that can be implemented immediately.
• Barbara is a Board-Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress and Diplomate with the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. She received a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a Master of Arts degree in community health, with a concentration in thanatology, both from Brooklyn College.