Policing is a demanding profession that takes a toll on you throughout your career. It is nearly impossible to come out of the job unscathed, given that you are exposed to the ugly and messy side of humanity at a rate much higher than the general population. You are also a human being and subject to all the stresses and strains inherent in living life. Police officers are trained to respond to unimaginable things and to compartmentalize any accompanying emotions as a means of officer safety. Unfortunately, cops are rarely trained on how to recover psychologically and emotionally to help them maintain a healthy life (and healthy relationships) outside of the job. All of this can make your efforts to maintain good mental health a complicated endeavor that is wrought with risks of engaging in unhealthy coping behaviors, suppressing things at the expense of your well-being and not seeking help because of stigma concerns.
Choosing to seek mental health treatment when you need it is an act of courage. It is important to find a mental health provider with proper training and experience. Given that law enforcement is a highly specialized field, it is important to know that treating cops is just as specialized. Your typical mental health professional is not going to understand law enforcement culture or the unique challenges of police work. I have heard countless stories from officers about sitting in therapy with a clinician who looks traumatized by what they say, or who is in awe that the officer is even able to function after being exposed to numerous traumatic events. It is experiences like these that can discourage officers from getting the help they need (and often leads them to make the incorrect assumption that all mental health professionals are the same). As a trained and experienced police psychologist, I’m here to tell you that even I cringe when I hear stories like this.
Choosing to seek mental health treatment when you need it is an act of courage.
It can be difficult to find a qualified mental health provider on your own. Depending on where you live, there may be too few or too many to choose from by simply conducting an online search or requesting referrals from your health insurance provider. Unfortunately, there are mental health providers out there who tout themselves as being “specialized” in treating law enforcement personnel, despite having little to no specialized training or experience. For these reasons, it is important to do your homework and take the time to screen available mental health providers to help determine if they are a good fit for your treatment needs.
If you seek mental health treatment, I recommend doing so from a licensed mental health professional. State licensing boards require minimum standards for educational degrees, clinical hours and ongoing continuing education to maintain licensure. This is designed to protect the consumer. Once you find a licensed provider, I recommend calling them to request a phone consultation to determine if they are right for you. It is common practice for clinicians to offer a free phone consultation prior to scheduling an appointment. This is an opportunity for both the clinician and the potential client to talk with one another to ensure a good fit for therapy. If your treatment needs are outside the scope of their training, experience or the type of treatment they provide, they should offer you additional referrals to other mental health providers.
When you speak with a mental health provider for an initial consultation, I recommend asking the following questions (and any others you may have):
- How long have you been practicing as a mental health provider? Are you licensed (in your respective state)?
- What is your experience working with law enforcement and other first responders? Approximately how many have you treated?
- What is your exposure to police culture?
- What is your philosophy and approach to helping? What is your therapy style?
- What kind of training and specialties do you have?
- What can I expect from doing counseling/therapy with you? What does a typical session look like?
- What is needed from me to make progress in counseling?
As a rule, if a mental health provider refuses to talk with you for a brief consultation prior to starting treatment or gets upset with you when you ask these questions, consider that a red flag and move on.
Mental health counseling is a collaborative process that works best when you actively participate. You get out of it what you put into it. If you withhold relevant information or decline to utilize the tools or complete the assignments provided, this could interfere with the effectiveness of the treatment interventions and recommendations provided to you. It is important to maintain an open line of communication with your therapist. If you disagree with a recommendation or something your therapist says, tell them. If you experience barriers to practicing the skills or completing any assigned tasks, say something. This will help your therapist modify your treatment plan to best meet your specific needs and goals. Lastly, if after a few sessions you feel that your therapist is not a good fit for you, it is perfectly acceptable to let them know and for them to provide you with additional referrals. The point of mental health treatment is to provide you with what you need.