Thursday, February 16th, 2012 by

Mental Health & Peer Support in Law Enforcement

Editors Note: In the following article Officer Jeff Watson discusses the need for integrated mental health services and appropriate peer support programs for all law enforcement officers.  Officer Watson has 12 years of civilian Law enforcement experience, and is currently working towards state licensure as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor specializing in P.T.S.D. and Trauma. He is also currently working towards a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership.

Since 1974, there have only been a handful of research studies in law enforcement about peer support. Most of the studies focused on one particular department and did not encompass additional data. Growing up, I didn’t value mental health services and had several slag terms for individuals employed in the mental health profession.

I always had a sense of wanderlust and I left home as soon as I graduated. I set off to find adventure in the military and as a military veteran I assumed I had all the tools I needed to survive a career in law enforcement. I was sorely mistaken. Several years into my law enforcement career I decided to go back to college, using my G.I. Bill. While sitting in the mandatory General Psychology class, everything started to make sense. I finally started to understand the criminals we came into contact with, my coworkers and more importantly myself. That was the start of my psychological journey.

I was determined to pursue psychology as a major and went on to graduate school, majoring in Mental Health Counseling, which will eventually lead to licensure. Like those before me, my goal is to open a mental health counseling practice to focus on law enforcement and first responders. As part of my internship, I trained at a local community mental health facility where I gained clinical experience. During my time at the facility, I gained valuable insight into how a civilian organization operated and their assumptions about what law enforcement can and can’t do.

I have dedicated the last 10 years of my life as an “agent of change” in hopes to “normalize” mental health in law enforcement. Since then, I have moved to a doctorate program in education. My dissertation is to design and implement a mental health counseling program which can be embedded into any law enforcement department.

Having said that the following are things I’ve learned during my time in law enforcement. The law enforcement profession does not hold mental health professionals in high regard. Historically speaking, mental health professionals were the last stop before a law enforcement officer was fired, suspended or had their firearm officially taken from them.

The law enforcement profession frowns upon showing any form of emotion. Law enforcement officers, collectively, do not have resources to turn to when they are in need of mental health services. Law Enforcement is a male dominated career field. Contemporary society has unwritten norms about men and emotions, especially crying. As with most men, law enforcement officers are no exception. Most male law enforcement officers do not show any visible signs of weakness, which is a way of maintaining credibility with their peers.

As with any population having difficulty with emotions, law enforcement officers frequently internalize their emotions and do not seek assistance, as seeking assistance can be viewed as a sign of weakness. Due to the lack of perceived mental health support systems, there is a higher rate of suicide… within law enforcement when compared to the general population.

Larger departments and those departments, which can afford a mental health professional, have a greater chance of assisting an officer in need of services. However, there is officer distrust of the mental health professionals, when the departments employ them, since the officers view those mental health professionals as “pipeline to the chief.” Another indication that Law enforcement officers hold the mental health professionals in contempt due to a select few mental health professionals who screen law enforcement officers for a “fitness for duty” evaluation. If the respective law enforcement member is “unfit” to continue to work in law enforcement, they are terminated. Several assumptions can be inferred from the distrust and provide some insight into possibilities the law enforcement officers does not seek mental health assistance. For a majority of law enforcement officers, the only resource for mental health services is their particular Employee Assistance Program (E.A.P). Most Employee Assistance Programs are for the general employees employed at a business or general employee problems such as marriage counseling, organizational stress, or financial stressors. Most of the programs do not have providers trained in trauma. There a large number of E.A.P. programs, which lack provider’s trained specifically to understand the law enforcement chronic exposure to trauma and violence.

Due to the shortage of providers and with mental health concerns among law enforcement on the rise, departments have implemented a Peer Support Program. A major obstacle for the original operation of the Peer Support Program is finding qualified peers who the majority will confide in.

Law enforcement officers face two general types of stress. The first type of stress is the chronic exposure to trauma, violence, horrific events, and crime scenes. Second type of stress is internal or organizational stress such as policy changes, demanding shift schedules, lack of perceived support from the organization, favoritism, and discipline. There is a tendency for law enforcement officers to turn to alcohol or other substances to help cope with their chronic exposure to trauma and organizational.

Previous Research Studies
In a law enforcement organizational stress study, Shane (2010) examined the organizational stressors faced by law enforcement officers in two large urban police departments in Michigan and New Jersey. There were 461 participants from two large urban police departments’ road patrol section. The participants completed several questionaries’ designed to measure the level of organizational stress.  The organizational stressors were called “job context” for the purposes of the study and included micro managing by the supervisors, “punishment for ‘minor” infractions, and “fearing of being ‘degunned’” (Shane 2010). The road patrol is comprised the highest number of new and non-tenured officers. This section felt they had no input in how the organization conducts daily operations and thus they had no control over what transpires within their organization (Shane 2010). Due to the structure of the organization, there were wide gaps in “social distance” which caused “internal communication” problems even in life-threatening situations (Shane 2010). The results of the research showed officers working for a large organization had the highest level of organization stress since they perceived they had no valid contribution in the organization and they viewed the organization as “self-serving” and unconcerned about the officers (Shane 2010).
Wester, Arndt, Sedivy, and Arndt (2010) conducted a study of 178 male law enforcement officers from a Southeastern Wisconsin police department to determine if there was a connection between male gender roles and the stigma associated with seeking mental health services. Wester et al. (2010) sought the assistance of law enforcement labor unions in an effort to alleviate any concerns about the study being used punitively by their department. The research supported the assumed stigma associated towards males seeking counseling as it desecrated male gender roles and posed a risk to the officers opinion of themselves. The results disclosed if the officer thought there were more benefits to counseling there was less stigma attached to actually attending counseling (Wester et al. 2010).

In 2010 Adams and Buck studied the “social stressors” of law enforcement officers in relation to the law enforcement officers peers and citizens the officers came into contact with as part of their job performance. There were 196 officer participants from 12 police departments in Wisconsin and Illinois.  Adams and Buck (2010) postulated police officers have to control and display appropriate emotions based on the current situation despite how the officer felt internally at the time. Adams and Buck (2010) called the “faking emotions” as “surface acting.” The officers answered a variety of questionnaires during the study. The results supported the “social stressors” and law enforcement officers routinely engage in “surface acting” in most social situations including their daily interactions with coworkers. The results also suggest “surface acting” is a response to organizational stress and law enforcement supervisors were encouraged to be mindful of the phenomenon to help reduce overall organizational stress (Adams and Buck 2010).
In 2009 Violanti, Fekedulegn, Charles, Andrew, Hartley, Mnatsakanova, and Burchfiel examined police suicide and potential causes. There were 105 officer participants from a midsized police department with 930 employees. Violanti et al. (2009) found a positive correlation between depression and suicidal ideation. The research results showed the male officers who had depression were twice as likely and female officers were three times as likely to have suicidal ideation compare to officers who were not depressed. A major preventative factor was marriage. If the officer was married they were less likely to commit suicide. In the findings, Violanti et al. (2009) suggest the law enforcement organizations develop a mental health program for officers to assist the officers who are in need of mental health services.

In a law enforcement sleep study in 2011, Rajaratnam, Barger, Lockley, Shea, Wang, Landrigan, O’Brien, Qadri, Sullivan, Cade, Epstien, White, and Czeisler studied the health and safety of law enforcement officers. Rajaratnam et al. (2011) studied almost 4957 law enforcement officers and their sleep patterns. The findings showed almost 46% of the officers reported falling asleep which driving at least once or twice in a month. During the study, two hundred eighty-seven participants had been involved in a vehicle crash. Almost 41% of the officers tested positive for at least one official diagnosable sleep disorder (Rajaratnam et al. 2011).

Becker, Meyer, Price, Graham, Arsena, Armstrong, and Ramon (2009) conducted a study to determine the preferences of law enforcement officers when they decided to seek treatment. Becker et al. (2009) found the officers were more positive towards mental health services when offered options for treatment. The officers’ top choices for therapy were Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Exposure Therapy. During the study Becker et al. (2009) found almost 10% of the officers met the official diagnoses for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.) and 48% of the officers met at least the first criteria for P.T.S.D. Becker et al. (2009) noted one question, “the question whither they would seek treatment if they did develop PTSD” was not answered by most of the officers leading Backer et al. (2009) to speculate the reasons the officers did not answer the question.

Deficiencies in the Evidence
In previous research studies, law enforcement officers have not answered truthfully for a variety of reasons including concerns about confidentially. Despite informed consent and other protective confidentiality measures, law enforcement officers do not feel completely protected. There are indications the officers believe their answers in the research studies will be turned over to their employing departments. There are few Peer Support Programs in existence within law enforcement community. Most of the current peer support programs are not based on empirical data and there is no set standard for peer support in the law enforcement community. Some Peer Support Programs do not have a complete infrastructure, which includes mental health professionals properly trained to assist law enforcement officers.

After a thorough review of all available research studies, there are few analytical research studies on the subject matter of peer support within law enforcement. Of the available research from 1974 to 2008, there were six research studies and three author opinions in law enforcement magazines. There are no current published research studies or data in support of Peer Support Teams.

Who can benefit?
All law enforcement officers, law enforcement peer support team members, all law enforcement supervisors, all law enforcement organizational leaders as well as all mental health professionals currently working with law enforcement officers and all future mental health professionals who will work with law enforcement can benefit from the study. The importance of the study will benefit the current gap in the research by providing statistical and applied data, which has been missing from previous research studies. The practical importance of this study will provide all law enforcement entities an empirically based mental health program at minimal cost.

What do you think?  Submit your comments in the box below

CLICK HERE to download a PDF version of Officer Watson’s white paper including his references.

Officer Jeff Watson has over 12 years of civilian law enforcement experience. Officer Watson has a wide range of experience ranging from Patrol Officer, Detective, to Crisis Negotiator. During his time in law enforcement, Officer, Officer Watson has had years of success dealing with consumers experiencing a mental health crises and assisting consumers in need of services.

Officer Watson is one of the founding members of his department’s Crisis Negotiation Team and was the team trainer. He founded the department’s first Peer Support Team and Critical Incident Stress Management Team and is the Teams Coordinator. Officer Watson has been teaching mental health and firearms classes to law enforcement officers since 2005 and teaches general and high liability classes at a local Department of Public Safety including the Crisis Intervention Team (C.I.T.) and firearms.

Officer Watson is currently working towards state licensure as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor specializing in P.T.S.D. and Trauma. Officer Watson is currently a Doctoral Student at Nova’s Fischler School of Education where he is working towards a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership.

Prior to his career in Law Enforcement, Officer Watson served his country for 12 years in the U.S. Army including Military Police Officer and Apache Helicopter Crew Chief.

Officer Watson is a member of American Counseling Association, The American Psychological Association, Florida Association of Hostage Negotiators, International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors, International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and National Tactical Officers Association.

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11 Comments

  • Feel free to check out my research involving male police officers and peer support (Adherence to Traditional Male Gender Roles and Its Influence on How Male Police Officers Offer Emotional Support To Fellow Traumatized Officers) at http://www.woundedbadge.com
    Thank you,
    Adam Pasciak Ph.D., LLP

    Excellent information on your site.

  • Hi Adam,
    Thanks for sharing! I just downloaded a copy of your paper and it looks very interesting.
    John

  • Jeff, you tackle an area that is all too unspoken of in a career that needs it the most. Like you, I too have been dedicating my life to changing the tag that many law enforcement officers put on mental health. I am an eight year veteran law enforcement officer working on my licensure for LCSW to serve the law enforcement community. You write about so many things that can be changed by one viewpoint being altered, that of the mental health field. Continue your journey with strength and compassion. I support what you are doing!!!!

  • Hi Stephanie,
    Thank you for your comments and thanks for all that you are doing to make law enforcement officers stronger!

  • We are looking for training for supervisors and officers on how to recognize whether an officer should receive a mental health evaluation for dangerousness to self, others, or mission based on the officer’s behavior or apparent mental state. Do you have any suggestions for this type of training? It can be instructor-led or web-based.

  • Hi Karen,
    Thank you for your request. I’ll send you a separate email with contact information for police psychologist, Jack Digliani Ph.D., and U.S. Navy Commander Eric Potterat Ph.D.
    Good Luck!

  • Thank for your thoughtful and important article. I work in education and the need for mental health services is just as vital. I hope you can find your way into the current public debate. Please take my next comment in the spirit intended, because I hope it does not appear to diminish my appreciation for your good work. I would encourage you to diversify your contributors.

  • Hi Markus,
    Thank you for your comments, and all your comments are welcome just as we are always looking for new contributors to CopsAlive.com. Thanks for reading!

  • Hello. I am a police officer in Louisville, Ky. I am currently attending The Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville which is an administrative officer’s course. I have been tasked with a graduate project and given a topic by my chief on Mental Resiliency in Officers. My dept currently offers EAP, a marriage enrichment seminar,we have a policy on dealing with critical incident stress, and we have a Peer Support Team. If anyone has any ideas or suggestions on what else my dept can do to combat divorce, sleep disorders, suicide, obesity, etc I would love to hear them. I am looking for something new and innovative to possibly implement into my dept. Anything to help with officer buy in? Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

  • There is so very much truth in your words and if I could express only one point it would be that especially young, or less experienced officers would take these lessons more to heart. I served as a deputy sheriff for seventeen years, was awarded two medals of Valor, and left at age forty-one. I didn’t take care of myself physically or emotionally and it took a tremendous toll on not only myself, but my family as well. I was able to save my family life, but had to abandon my law enforcement life. I miss it everyday, and think that things may have been different if I had spent more time to take care of myself…

  • Hi Brandon,

    Thank you for your comments. I’m sorry that you suffered so much, but I am glad that you were able to establish your life’s priorities. I left law enforcement when I was 45 and know exactly how you feel. Please take care and know that your law enforcement family will always be here to honor and accept you and by making a tough decision you have become a role model from which others may learn.

    Stay safe and stay well,

    John Marx

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