PRESCRIPTION FOR POLICE MENTAL HEALTH
The “ANNUAL MENTAL HEALTH CHECK”
“Suicide Prevention” is important, but it’s only one part of the formula. It can never be enough that we sit and wait until officers are in crisis or are suicidal before we act. We have to do something before they get there. It’s no longer enough to say, “Get help when you need it.” It’s time to tell our officers, “Get the help BEFORE you need it!
Remember–for every police suicide, there are a thousand more officers out there, still working and suffering from the symptoms of PTSD.
This is where the mental health check, developed in 2006, is vital. It is the “second part of the formula” needed to finally begin reducing suicides.
What is the annual mental health check?
First, it’s voluntary. (Departments, pay heed– “mandating” this has been tried. It won’t work. Nor will forcing officers to see a psychologist designated by you.)
Developed in 2006, this is an annual process in which we suggest an officer visit a licensed therapist once a year for at least one visit as a “checkup,” in the same way one visits a doctor for an annual physical or a dentist for a cleaning and check for cavities and other problems. This is where it “happens”—emotional health is not a classroom exercise.
Sound uncomfortable? Relax, and just think about it. Your career is one of the most toxic, dangerous, violent and traumatic in the world. You deal with “unhealth” on the streets every day and night, then go home and try to lead a healthy home life. You are dealing with stress, yes—but more importantly, you are dealing with TRAUMA on a continuum. While each traumatic incident may not disable you or give you PTSD, you are dealing with it nonetheless, year after year, decade after decade.
Does it wear at you? Yes. Is there a reason they believe police retiree suicides are also too high? Yes–because of what they went through for so many years. This is how you can keep it from happening to you.
The idea behind the annual mental health check is not that “something is wrong.” It’s a matter of taking charge of your own personal health–your emotional well being.
This is voluntary. You don’t have to go. You don’t have to see the dentist, either–ever. You can let your teeth rot and “gum it” the rest of your life.
If a department tries to mandate a mental health check program, we guarantee it will fail.
But bear in mind, also, that a clear and healthy mind, over the rest of your career, can save your life on the streets. What you don’t take care of today may lodge in your subconscious and make the difference of a few seconds five years from now. It happens. It may also mix with the screams from last month and the “spitter” from Labor Day and the dead kid at the lake two years ago and the wreck when you were off duty…and leave you wondering why you’re arguing with your spouse more, lately. One of the first places job stress shows up is in the home.
Why wait until it does? Why not keep up with it–even stay ahead of it? It’s not like you need someone’s permission to take care of yourself. An annual mental health check is not an elaborate process. What you make of it is entirely up to you. You may wish to start with your local employee assistance program and then move on to a private therapist. Or you may wish to begin with a private therapist.
Why would I go to a private therapist? Some officers prefer finding an “outside” therapist because they are worried about confidentiality. Most contracted employee assistance (EAP) programs do assure confidentiality, including from the department, and can outline those levels to the employee. Still, many officers are nervous about seeing anyone they feel is “connected” to their department.
Wouldn’t I have to pay for a private therapist? Yes. If you don’t trust anything related to the department and it then becomes a matter of going or not going, you should be willing to pay (generally a co-pay on your insurance). The salary of most police officers can handle the co-pay, and the mental health return beats the alternatives.
Confidentiality: The patient-client relationship relies on confidentiality. This is something you want to discuss with the therapist and be comfortable with before you begin. Get it in writing. Generally, you are protected unless you are a danger to yourself or others or involved in elder or child abuse. Also, of course, if you were to file a claim for a stress related injury, you would be expected to allow access to your medical records.
“Mandating visits” doesn’t work. There’s no sense in sending an officer in on a mandatory visit, regardless of what assurances you give him, and expect him to reap the kind of benefits desired. The Mental Health Checks are for the officer–not the department. They can only be encouraged, not forced. How they are encouraged, however, is a matter of effective training and leadership from the top.
Number of visits. As with a physical or dental exam, you may find two or more visits desirable. Again, these are confidential visits, and the goal is emotional survival. Like our physical conditioning, our health and our teeth, if we ignore our emotional well being and strengths in facing up to the toxic environment in which we work, we will suffer the consequences.
How do I select a therapist? First, don’t sit around waiting until you can find a “cop doc.” If you’re lucky enough to find one, do make make sure they’re the right one for you. Having been a cop may make the difference–or it may not make them the right therapist for you. Comfort, listening and interactive skills and expertise are the most important considerations. Make sure they have more than war stories to tell–that they are well versed in PTSD and are licensed by the state. Anne Bisek’s video, “How to Select a Therapist,” contains excellent criteria to consider in picking a good therapist, qualifications, confidentiality, etc.
We encourage you to take advantage of tools like the mental health check because they will save your relationships, your career, your happiness and your retirement. We urge you to utilize it whether your department endorses and pays for it–or not. It’s your health. Think about it–if you’re sick, your chief won’t be there to feed you chicken noodle soup. Nor will the chief be there as you struggle with the nightmares and anxieties at night.
It’s up to you.
CRITICAL VS CUMULATIVE PTSD
“Stress” and “Trauma” are not the same things. Stress “happens,” every day, to everyone. It happens more to cops. But trauma “happens to you.” It’s a big deal–far more than stress.
Critical Incidents are like Mack trucks–the big, catastrophic events that can cause posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among police officers and can lead to suicide. Departments with programs spot critical incidents right away: the shootouts, the loss of a partner, the death of a child. All systems are “Go.” Debriefings are held. Referrals to professionals are made when appropriate. Prompt action can greatly minimize, if not eliminate, the impacts of PTSD.
Cumulative PTSD, however, is like one bumblebee sting after another. These are the incidents that aren’t “headliners,” that are missed by everyone, even the officer. They mulitply over the years. These bumblebee stings are the “dirty little secrets” of law enforcement: the shames, the mistakes, the repeated “routine” horrors, the betrayals, abuses and the dark fears only the officer knows and shares with no one, not even peer officers. We call them the “soul woundings” of law enforcement.
After years, it may take only a minor incident (or none) to trigger a breakdown or suicide.
Make no mistake—cumulative PTSD is deadly. And for every police suicide, there are a thousand more officers still working and suffering from cumulative trauma. Departments suffer from them as well–through increased sick leave, citizens’ complaints, lawsuits and personnel actions.
Some of these are happening on departments with good “suicide prevention” programs. If everyone knows the standard list of “warning signs” to look for, why are they slipping under the radar? Why were they really missed? Was the officer that good at maintaining a facade? (think a moment–we train them to maintain facades!).
WHY WOULD A DEPARTMENT WANT TO ENCOURAGE “MENTAL HEALTH CHECKS?”
Again–it’s not “just about suicides.” It’s about emotional survival for all police officers. A department should consider the reductions in:
- Officer deaths from shootings and accidents
- sick leave
- Substance abuse
- Criminal/other behaviors
- On and off-job injuries
- morale problems
- and much more!