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Focus on Officer Wellness: Moving Mental Health Out of the Shadows

This article was authored by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute’s B.J. Wagner, Senior Vice President of Health and Public Safety and Jeff Spivey, Senior Fellow of Law Enforcement Policy and was originally published in Police Chief Magazine on October 3, 2023. 

In 2022, a reported 160 members of law enforcement from across the United States were lost to suicide.

In Texas alone, that number was 16, the most from any U.S. state. While all of the circumstances that led up to these officers dying by suicide are not known, it is clear that there is much work to be done to achieve the only acceptable number of suicide deaths—zero.

These numbers cannot be ignored, nor can the profession be indifferent to officers’ suffering. Law enforcement must openly acknowledge the burden that officers are forced to carry from their exposure to stress and trauma. lt is owed to those lost to challenge the status quo of officer wellness in law enforcement agencies. Doing so allows agencies to make the necessary changes to a culture and belief system that has historically stigmatized those who sought services by moving mental health from the shadows and normalizing asking for help.

The Texas Law Enforcement Peer Network
A fresh approach in Texas has taken the lead to offer easily accessible support to all police officers and provide them with the assistance they deserve.

The Texas Law Enforcement Peer Network (TLEPN) is breaking up the decades-long culture of silence over mental health and wellness. Through a unique, statewide, state-funded peer support program, all Texas law enforcement officers have access 24 hours a day, every day of the year, to specially trained peers who can assist them in managing stressors, trauma, fatigue, and other needs to address burnout, self-harm, and suicide.

The TLEPN is the first of its kind in the United States, and it has set the example for other states to follow to end the epidemic of law enforcement suicide.

The TLEPN aims to end the attitudes within law enforcement that sharing one’s thoughts among colleagues or seeking assistance is a sign of weakness.

Although the profession has considerably improved in this area, regretfully some within law enforcement have been stubbornly resistant to change. This attitude, along with the lack of anonymity in many officer wellness programs, creates substantial barriers for officers seeking help prior to problems becoming crises. The fear of the perception of not being a “cops’ cop” is a daily barrier to using services that not only can save officers’ lives but can create healthier work environments and better workforces for the communities they serve.

Since the launch of the TLEPN in April 2022, the network has grown to include more than 700 peer supporters, with numbers increasing monthly, who have received the state’s specific peer training and stand ready to connect with the thousands of sworn officers across Texas.

What makes the program so successful is the span and scope of the peers and the officers they serve. Regardless of location, whether they serve 1,000 or 1 million people, tenure of service, or departmental resources, all officers are treated with dignity and respect in the TLEPN and receive equal access to care.

Another cornerstone of the program is the guarantee of anonymity. Confidentiality is a guarantee with any peer service offered, and the TLEPN takes that a step further and has developed processes that also protect the officer’s identity until they are ready to share their name, location, and contact information. This is more than a practice-it is codified in Texas law that any information shared with the peers in the network is provided in an anonymous and confidential environment.

A New Approach
Tackling suicide and mental health in law enforcement cannot be achieved without addressing key triggers of stress and trauma, like mass casualty events.

The Texas Blue Chip Program, an extension of TLEPN, will drive right to the heart of the issue, providing access to no-cost clinical and mental health services to police officers any time those services are needed.

Like the peer support network, this new initiative will provide support to any police officer across the state of Texas at what is often the most challenging time in their career, whether it involves responding to a traumatic incident such as an extreme weather event, mass shooting, or a fatal traffic incident or living with the daily stressors and chronic trauma exposure and fatigue associated with a career in policing.

Funded through philanthropic organizations, the Texas Blue Chip Program is modeled on a similar program that was created at the Arlington, Texas, Police Department, in which exclusively designed poker chips are made available at locations in the region, typically at local police, fire, and emergency departments.3 Police officers are able to obtain these chips confidentially and use them for culturally competent, anonymous, and no-cost mental health and clinical services that have been identified by the TLEPN in the region.

The Texas Blue Chip Program has been designed in response to emerging research that indicates that the largest issue affecting officer health and well-being is exposure to critical incidents and stressful situations. Without support, mental health challenges following these incidents can go unmanaged, putting police officers at higher risk of post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, and suicide. Providing immediate support and resources to the police officers who continuously risk their lives for the benefit of their communities during the most tumultuous of times is an important step toward ending law enforcement suicide.

The Need Continues to Grow
Beginning with the tragedy in Uvalde, when the TLEPN was just a month old, the network immediately saw the need to develop a response plan to any mass trauma event in the state and provide comprehensive and continuous peer-based services with clinical referrals and, upon request, assistance with volunteer coordination.

On June 15,2023, Perryton, Texas, a city with fewer than 10,000 residents, experienced a crippling EF3 tornado, destroying critical city infrastructure and homes and devastating the lives of community members-including first responders. Immediately, the network initiated an action plan, with 5 TLEPN peers responding to the scene, providing support to officers working and impacted by the disaster, alerting 100 peers with geographical proximity to Perryton to prepare to respond, and connecting with the city’s emergency manager to offer additional support, including partners with the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute Trauma and Grief Center for community members’ services and support.

In Allen, Texas, on May 6, 2023, a horrific mass shooting killed eight people, including a three-year-old boy. This event had a devastating impact on the community and was a traumatic experience for the police officers involved. ln response, the TLEPN provided a trauma-informed response plan with the support of its trained peers and clinical providers. Importantly, understanding that a trauma response can often have a delayed onset, the program and peers follow up at 30-, 60-, 90-, and 120-day intervals for continuity of services. The TLEPN strives to provide a safe and compassionate environment for law enforcement officers to manage stress, trauma, and fatigue.

As shown by the TLEPN, there is room to create ideas to overcome the challenges that drive people away from the lifesaving care they need. The field can create. The field can deliver. The field can do better, and in Texas, they are. The profession should not stop promoting mental health care until law enforcement suicide ends, and Texas, through the TLEPN and the Texas Blue Chip Program, is pioneering an approach to officer wellness to create the healthiest law enforcement workforce possible.

View this article on Police Chief Magazine’s website.