Mental Health Awareness Month: A Focus on First Responders
In addition to May being Mental Health Awareness Month, May 11-15 is Police Week, with May 15 designated as Peace Officers’ Memorial Day. This coincidence of the calendar illustrates a real fact: the first responders we all trust and depend on also have mental health care needs that deserve to be met.
We know a number of factors contribute to mental health issues among police officers. One study found that on average, police officers witness 188 traumatic and critical incidents during their careers. This repeated exposure to trauma can lead to several forms of distress such as anxiety, insomnia, post traumatic symptoms, and depression.
First responders are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
Industry leaders are becoming increasingly aware of the link between behavioral wellness, physical wellness, and overall officer performance and retention and are calling for action.
For action, we must first have understanding. Research frequently describes shame and stigma surrounding mental health care needs within a profession that prioritizes bravery and toughness. While this culture is perhaps necessary to survive the dangers of the job, it also contributes to the phenomenon of officers not seeking help to manage chronic stress or trauma injury, or even recognizing the need before it becomes critical.
With no statewide coordinated effort to end police suicides in Texas (or in any other state), MMHPI and The University of North Texas-Dallas Caruth Police Institute (UNTD-CPI) are working to establish the Texas First Responder Peer Network. The network will be grounded with regional law enforcement agency hubs serving as network drivers, collaborating with law enforcement agencies in their region to recruit and train peers in trauma-informed, culturally competent, peer-to-peer response techniques. These confidential peer services will be available to any first responder within the region at no cost.
We also must recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic represents one of the biggest policing challenges in modern times. First responders are facing increased workloads as they adapt to policing and emergency response models in a pandemic, compounding the dynamic nature of first responder stress and fatigue at a time health, wellness, and resiliency are more critical than ever.
To help provide assistance, MMHPI and CPI recently presented the Policing in Pandemic Virtual Peer Networking Series, bringing together nationally recognized peer specialists, experts, and first responder wellness providers in a digital platform that provided anonymity to officers joining online to share experiences, hear from their peers, and get real time resources to address the impact of the daily stress and uncertainty that has become the new normal.
We owe a great debt to our first responders and will continue to work to improve their mental health care, their lives, and the lives of their families, no matter the week or month.