The last two years have been a lot to handle for cops. On top of the everyday on-the-job traumas that already contribute to a higher-than-average risk of suicide, police officers continue to feel the lingering toll from last year’s protests and calls for reform and the impact of COVID-19, the leading cause of duty-related deaths in 2020 and 2021.
For members of the Phoenix Police Department in Arizona, recent horrific incidents have only added to the emotional strain — including a September call to a scene where a mother allegedly shot her two young children multiple times, killing one, and then attempted to take her own life. “Behind the badge, our officers are people,” Sergeant Ann Justus told Arizona’s Family after that event. “At the end of the day, they are people first and they have human emotions, so when that’s happening they’re able to put that aside, they’re able to get the job done, but then when reality hits them it can hit really hard. It’s not normal to see a child shot. It’s not normal to do CPR on a baby who is shot by a parent.”
Fortunately, more and more individuals within the department are enlisting the confidential services of the Employee Assistance Unit. Established a few years ago, the unit is staffed by eight detectives trained in critical incident stress management and two K-9s who operate as therapy dogs.
“So, [the dogs] help us a lot when we’re going out and being proactive with briefings, or maybe we’re doing a debrief or deconflicting for a critical incident that’s involving officers,” explained Sergeant Rachel Warren, who oversees the unit, to Arizona’s Family.
In addition to providing peer support, plus spiritual support through department chaplains, the unit also contracts with Crisis Preparation Recovery, a behavioral health company staffed by social workers, licensed counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists. Counseling is available to family members as well as sworn and civilian personnel.
Indeed, law enforcement agencies across the country have begun to implement more concerted efforts to promote mental health services for the rank and file. In Washington, D.C., the U.S. Capitol Police force brought in therapy dogs to help members cope with the aftermath of multiple critical incidents this year, including the loss of three officers associated with the January 6 attack.
“If you just look at this little girl and that waggly tail and that smile and if we can just bring some smiles, we can just bring some heart back to people to help them get through the day, to help get them through this tough job that we need them to do,” Michal Anna Padilla, training director for Guide Dogs of the Desert — the Palm Springs, California, organization that provided therapy dog Lila to the Capitol Police — told WUSA News.
Additionally, police leaders and educators are working to diminish negative barriers associated with seeking assistance. When Sergeant Lynette Butler, with the William Paterson University Police in Wayne, New Jersey, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) more than 20 years ago, she avoided the department’s employee assistance program for fear it would derail her career if superiors discovered she was struggling with mental health concerns. Now she’s working toward changing that mindset.
“There’s a big lack of trust in this industry when it comes to accessing services for our mental health,” she told Benefit News. “No one should suffer in silence because they’re afraid they can’t make a living for their family.”
Butler has joined forces with the Quell Foundation to provide free, anonymous mental health services to first responders. They’re also writing a curriculum about how to identify and care for on-the-job mental health to be included in police academies training of future officers.
If you’re struggling to cope with the emotional or mental health aspects of being a law enforcement professional, contact your department’s employee assistance program, peer support or chaplain services. If you prefer remaining anonymous, reach out to CopLine, a confidential 24/7 hotline manned by retired law enforcement officers, at (800) 267-5463.