As police agencies across the country build new wellness programs for their personnel, how will they know if they are effective and are actually helping?
The prevalence of police suicide has finally emerged from the shadows in the past decade, spurring a profession-wide focus on resilience and officer wellness. While the shift in our culture is promising, it is critical that often-limited resources are properly directed, so that we get the most bang for our buck when it comes to wellness services. While research into successful programs is important and may provide a base of knowledge from which to begin building a program of services, the needs and desires of our personnel should be the focus of efforts if we are to ensure effectiveness.
In that vein, the National Fraternal Order of Police routinely surveys its over 364,000 members to gather information about the perceptions and experiences of both active and retired officers. Beginning in 2018 with the FOP/NBC Survey of Police Officer Mental and Behavioral Health, which drew nearly 8,000 responses from police officers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the FOP began to learn about the perceptions, experiences, needs and desires of members of law enforcement when it comes to mental health and wellness. For example, although 79% of respondents to the 2018 survey reported experiencing critical levels of stress at some point in their careers, 90% reported that stigma existed and acted as a barrier to asking for help with their mental health. Based upon these and other findings of the survey, the FOP, an independent member-driven organization, began to utilize this data, straight from officers in the field, to build effective wellness services for members of law enforcement.
Over half of the officers surveyed in 2018 indicated a concern that wellness providers — counselors, psychologists, etc. — would not understand the nature of police work or larger police culture. Recognizing that officers often won’t seek services from a professional who they believe will not understand them, the FOP increased and enhanced its process of vetting wellness providers, seeking to identify those culturally competent at working with law enforcement clients and their families. Today, the FOP Approved Provider Bulletin, an online directory of culturally competent wellness services, is being built. This tool enables police agencies, officers and their support systems to locate effective wellness services from the privacy of their own homes and in their own time. As the ongoing process of vetting more and more providers and programs continues, a network of qualified professional services is being placed at the fingertips of officers, and it all began with data gathered from officers themselves!
As the range and variety of wellness services available to law enforcement increases, survey research consistently confirms that peer support is the service most preferred by officers, and the one they deem most effective at assisting them in times of need. This was first indicated in the 2018 FOP/NBC Survey of Police Officer Mental and Behavioral Health, in which nearly 90% of those officers who had access to peer support found it helpful. Since 2018, the number of peer support programs in police agencies across the country has exploded, and fortunately, this service is more widely available than ever.
The 2021 FOP Biennial Critical Issues in Policing Survey, which included the voices of 3,843 active police officers around the country, confirmed that of all wellness services available, peer support continues to be perceived as most effective by officers. Currently, the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) is working with the National FOP to develop a national standard in law enforcement peer support training. The Power in Peers course will begin to be taught throughout the United States in 2023, increasing the number of trained peers available to assist their fellow officers. The Power in Peers curriculum was also crafted with input from members of law enforcement, as the FOP again surveyed members about the ways in which peer support could be most helpful, including measurements of the circumstances and issues with which officers most wanted help and the mentoring of a peer.
Moving into the future, as resources for developing wellness services and programming may at times be limited, checking in with those at whom the services are directed is key. Best practices dictate that before building we conduct research, and that research should be designed to include users of the tools. In fact, this should be the case with each challenge that faces law enforcement: that we include the perceptions and needs of personnel involved.
Building a culture of wellness requires that we seek ways to appeal to every individual. No two people will respond the same way to a wellness resource, and different things may appeal to different officers. Findings of the 2021 FOP Critical Issues in Policing Survey indicate that the greater the number of wellness services a police agency provides or can link an officer to, whether internal or external, the lower the level of burnout among officers. Greater access to wellness services also serves the purpose of reducing stigma that might prevent an officer from asking for help as they see the value that an agency places on wellness through the dedication of resources. This issue is far too important to just check a box.