Officer wellness matters. It’s not just words; it requires action.
October is National Depression Screening Month and October 5 is National Depression Screening Day, an annual reminder that you should get screened. Just as you should get your blood pressure checked at least once a year, even if you have no risk factors and a lifetime of good health, you should get screened for depression this month whether you have been feeling down or like the bluebird of happiness.
Depression, like high blood pressure, can linger and hide like a thief in the night, lurking outside of one’s awareness. Depression screening is like routinely sending a patrol car through a neighborhood even without receiving a call for help, to better ensure community safety. This article explains how screening is an important tool for officer wellness, how peer support can help, how alcohol makes things worse and when to seek professional help. Organizational recommendations are offered for those departments that choose to walk the walk this month when it comes to officer wellness.
The importance of screening
Depression screening is good self-care for law enforcement personnel, regardless of whether they actually feel depressed. It’s about taking the time to live well — to perform an internal scan, manage stress, lower risk, and increase insight and resilience. Take the time to perform this oil, lube and filter on your mental health. You deserve it.
Depression screenings are a quick and easy way to spot first signs. You can learn the characteristic symptoms of depression, whether you meet diagnostic criteria and to what extent, helpful resources and how you might be impacted even if you are not suffering from depression.
The screenings are also important because they allow for the one-two punch of early identification and consistently fighting the stigma of depression. Consider this analogy: Officers get debriefed after an OIS whether they were traumatized or not. This is intentional, and there is a reason for it. Acute stress symptoms after a critical incident are normal, valid and nothing to hide. In fact, hiding them would be counterproductive to recovery and resilience and, as such, they might bite you on the bottom later in life. Everyone gets debriefed after an OIS (and in certain other critical incidents) to identify and resolve acute stress symptoms before they transform into chronic mental health problems (e.g., PTSD, panic attacks, clinical depression) and to better ensure that everyone who needs support gets it. Likewise, everyone should get screened for depression to identify and resolve symptoms before they transform into more chronic or entrenched depression, to prevent suicide, to better ensure that everyone who needs support gets it and to help fight the negative stigma around depression.
How peer support can help
Peer support is a powerful resource to support officer safety and wellness. A 2018 survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) found that 90% of law enforcement personnel who used peer support found it helpful or very helpful; 80% said they would seek peer support again and 90% said they would recommend peer support to a colleague. These officers reported that peer support services helped them perform their jobs better and improved their personal life.
Peer support personnel are colleagues (not department police psychologists or other mental health therapists) who are specifically trained to provide emotional support. The purpose of peer support is to allow all employees the opportunity to receive emotional and tangible support (e.g., psychological first aid) when those employees are experiencing work or personal issues.
How alcohol makes things worse
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, so drinking only makes depression worse. It slows down and interferes with the brain’s communication pathways. It makes it harder to think clearly, make optimal decisions and examine the possible consequences of actions.
Alcohol interferes with the release of neurotransmitters linked to mood regulation. This is why speech, coordination and energy are negatively impacted, and emotions can become a rollercoaster ride. This is also how antidepressants are rendered less effective or impotent with heavy drinking.
If you are depressed, consider avoiding alcohol until your symptoms are fully resolved. If your depression was actually induced by alcohol, then consider sobriety as a lifestyle. But even if you are not depressed, know that the more you drink, the more likely you are to develop symptoms of depression.
When to seek professional help
If you are in crisis: Remain calm and go immediately to your local ER. Behavioral crisis symptoms may include threats to harm oneself or others, yelling or screaming, lashing out, throwing objects (and other volatile actions), neglect of personal hygiene, sleeping too much or not at all, and abrupt and unpredictable changes in behavior. Irrational thoughts give way to dysregulated emotions (e.g., extremes in sadness, agitation and anger). Depression can manifest itself as irritable or angry outbursts, particularly in children and older adults. Recognizing when someone is in crisis is key to getting them the appropriate help quickly.
If you are not in crisis but are having difficulty managing your symptoms: Reach out to your medical doctor or the department psychologist today. Tell them you need to schedule an appointment this week because you are depressed and having difficulty managing your symptoms. Let them know if you are having suicidal thoughts and, if so, ask to be seen today.
If your symptoms are manageable: Consider nonprofessional supports at this time. Increase social support. Increase time with family and friends who matter. Consult with peer support, the department wellness coordinator and trusted others. Strengthen connections.
Chiefs: Be the positive role model. Get screened first, then spread the word. Share with the troops that you were screened, what it was like and what you learned. Let them hear it from your lips. Afford all employees 20 minutes on duty to be screened in a private manner, and strongly encourage them to do so (even if they feel fit as a fiddle). After all, you get your oil, lube and filter every 3,000 miles whether you think you need it or not. Reinforce your authentic support for officer wellness. Instruct watch commanders, peer support, police psychologists and wellness personnel to engage in their prescribed activities below.
Watch commanders: Lead all roll-call trainings educating the troops about National Depression Screening Day. It can be as simple as sharing a story, expressing genuine support for officer wellness, reminding them of department and local resources, and sharing this article.
Peer support: Assist watch commanders at all roll calls. Share a story from your experience and remind the troops of your support role.
Police psychologists: Conduct (voluntary) on-site depression screening for all employees. Offer psychoeducation, recommendations and support.
Wellness team: Get involved! Activate! It’s all hands on deck!