As an officer, admitting you have a need for support and reaching out can be difficult. In a reactive wellness program, an individual must self-identify their need for contact and find the appropriate avenue for care. While this reactive method is the norm, there are additional structures that can be integrated into an agency’s peer support programming that allows for additional connection opportunities: proactive and coactive support. Proactive wellness programs have become more popular recently because they ensure that all officers have a peer support check-in on a regular schedule. This means that every member of an organization will have a conversation at a set or maximum frequency, providing a consistent opportunity for officers to begin discussions early, before issues compound.
A proactive peer support interaction allows for a colleague to take on the awkward first step of reaching out to someone to communicate that “I am here. You are not alone. I will walk with you.” This helps the supported person know they have support from someone who they do not have to explain their job to; the person “gets it.” The role of peer support is not to be a counselor, but rather to walk alongside as someone with shared experience, to support a fellow officer to reach out to professional help if and when they need to and perhaps just as importantly, to follow up and continue the conversation when it is necessary. Sergeant Dave Bohdal, a police peer support coordinator at a large service, says, “You have to have channels in place where people can reach out, of course, but to ensure you’re covering and looking after as many of your colleagues as possible, you need to find ways to be proactive; you can’t always sit back and wait for them to come to you.” Proactive check-ins take on the awkwardness of reaching out to peer support and get peer supporters actively and regularly reaching out to their peers.
Jonathan Woodbeck, a health and wellness coordinator, says that “conversations may be brief or an engaging opportunity to let members know that there is always a peer available to talk to when they need it. Proactive check-ins work to normalize the idea of talking with the peer support team, helping employees to become familiar with the stories and faces of your trained peers and reducing the stigma of reaching out later on when a need or crisis does occur.”
Crisis does not always work on a neat and tidy timeline, so wellness programs need to ensure that a conventional reactive solution is still available alongside a proactive one. Here in Duluth, Minnesota, our teams use an app-based solution where an officer can curate a standing list of preferred peer supports and, with a button press, indicate they would like to talk.
Crisis does not always work on a neat and tidy timeline, so wellness programs need to ensure that a conventional reactive solution is still available alongside a proactive one.
But what is coactive peer support? Departments that do not have a large enough staff base to incorporate a peer support team have established a coactive model where they share access to peer supports from other agencies. Being coactive ensures that smaller departments that do not have as many internal resources are able to foster a successful and proactive wellness program and allows members of large and small departments that would prefer to meet with a trained or certified peer outside of their own agency’s walls a safe way to do so. Peer support in smaller departments can sometimes feel “too close to home” and discourage officers from reaching out. With coactive sharing, officers can get the distance they need to feel comfortable when they reach out to another department’s peer support team. Cultivating these cross-departmental peer support relationships strengthens the wellness program for all departments involved and gives officers and other first responders choices on who they can reach out to.
Wellness programs continue to change and evolve. Proactive and coactive approaches provide opportunities for departments to offer robust peer support to their members that work to strengthen the mental health and well-being of officers. Transitioning from a solely reactive peer support approach to a reactive, proactive and coactive model ensures that officers, no matter their department location or their hesitancy to reach out for support, are provided with the avenues for care and resources they need to live healthier lives and continue doing their job at a high-functioning level.