Police reform and the stigma of mental health care in law enforcement are two ideas that are rarely spoken about in the same conversations. To date, I have not heard of any police leader that is instituting good mental health and wellness programs under the heading of police reform, but what if? What if every leader or every department in the nation created well-functioning, highly exceptional psychologically and medically-based wellness programs to enhance their version of police reform or initiate budgetary line items that spent as much on psychological care for their employees as they did on de-escalation or implicit bias training? I’m not insinuating that one type of training is more important than another; I’m merely stating that an excellent mental and psychological health program should be equal to these trainings in planning and budgetary considerations.
With information from Dr. Jonathan Sheinberg, sworn law enforcement officer, cardiac physician, and veteran, we know that police officers are dying 22 years before the general population. We know that except for COVID deaths, suicide rates among police are typically double that of the line of duty deaths. As of the date of this article, American law enforcement has already exprienced 24 suicides for 2021, according to bluehelp.org.
Police reform, reimagining the police, defund the police are all mantras shouted from the highest rooftops, and leaders are doing their best to meet the demands of the loudest voices while the rank and file quietly suffer under the light of the latest movement, but what if? What if instead of cultivating a culture where your employees suffer in silence, struggle with their demons, struggle with failed marriages, broken families, depression, anxiety, anger, sadness, helplessness, and hopelessness, you instead created an environment of well-being because physically and mentally fit officers are all that stand between you and the next bad headline. They are all that stand between you and the next excessive use of force complaint, and they are all that stand between you and the low morale of your department as well as their families.
During my 25 years in law enforcement, I have had both good physical health and bad, just as I have had good mental health and bad. I’ve been an angry employee who did not serve my department or my family well, just as I have been a valued team member and a good wife and mother. Still, through all of my experiences, I wonder what would have been different if, from the start of my career, there had been training not only telling me the terrible things I was going to see and endure because we have to be prepared for it but also how I could healthily get through them, in-service training that reinforced new healthy coping techniques or having a positive mindset or how to be resilient in the worst of times?
What if there had been yearly physicals giving me a baseline for improving my physical health, an annual psychological exam as a check-in, not as a fitness for duty exam, and helpful tips in how to improve both of these?
What if every police leader evaluated themselves to see where they were both physically and mentally to set an example for their subordinates or, as some would say, setting an example from top to bottom?
What if there were incentives provided for fitness and staggered implementation of these programs rather than an announcement that we will begin these initiatives, and oh, by the way, you’ll be fired if you don’t pass them?
What if there were employee challenges that encouraged healthy competition on wellness initiatives?
What if you started and maintained a robust and continually improving, trained peer support team coupled with culturally competent mental health professionals?
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that eats its own. We judge and criticize rather than be empathetic and positive, but what if we didn’t?” What if we as leaders started the initiative that says yes, we will see and be subjected to some terrible things in our career, but we will also provide you a path to get through them healthily? What if we provided professional and compassionate leadership to our employees? What if we provided good, effective wellness training from the cradle to the grave, that we followed best practices provided by the many wellness initiatives that are currently out there, that we cared for our employees in the same manner that we would want our family members treated by their supervisors and that if someone fails, we will give you the tools to pick yourself up and proceed?
I realize that in writing this, there are leaders out there that are already making their mental checklist of why they can’t do this, why these initiatives are too hard, and how I could not afford them. Still, my question to you is how could you not want to implement small changes in your department’s culture that could enhance the service to your community, especially in this day and age.
This article is not written to shame or be intolerant of anyone who doesn’t have these programs in place, but if you don’t, please change that. Many organizations provide training for leadership on how to set up a positive wellness initiative. The Warriors Rest Foundation, The Fraternal Order of Police Wellness initiative, Academy Hour, That Peer Support Couple, and many more organizations are out there to consult you and provide resources. Please reach out. There are many cost-effective programs out there that can benefit you in your efforts to reform your agency. All it takes is “Just 1 Contact.”. Just ask yourself, and then ask your staff…” what if?”
- That Peer Support Couple — www.cathyandjavi.com
- Warriors Rest Foundation — www.warriorsrestfoundation.org
- The Fraternal Order of Police — www.fop.net or [email protected]
- I am Sigma — www.IamSigma.com
- Dr. Jonathan Sheinberg- www.publicsafetyheart.org or [email protected]
Cathy Bustos is a retired police lieutenant from Central Texas. As one half of “That Peer Support Couple, LLC,” she is a strong peer support advocate speaking about surviving critical incidents and marriage, leadership, and many peer support-related topics. She can be reached by email [email protected], their website: www.cathyandjavi.com Facebook, Instagram & Twitter.