Hundreds of police officers have signed up for Texas mental-health program, officials say
This article was originally published by Dallas Morning News on September 8, 2022.
Hundreds of officers in Texas have signed up for a new state program that aims to reduce police suicide and self-harm rates by confidentially pairing law enforcement officers in need with peers trained to address mental-health problems, local and state officials announced Thursday.
The Texas Law Enforcement Peer Network, launched this spring, is operated by the University of North Texas at Dallas Caruth Police Institute and has helped 46 officers in need so far, said Dustin Schellenger, state director of the program, at a news conference at the school.
He said the network has more than 300 volunteer officers who’ve received state-approved training to help their peers through stress, trauma and fatigue.
The program uses the GreenLight Balance app, which officers in Texas can confidentially download for free. Whenever officers need help, they can press a button in the app, and it’ll anonymously pair them with a volunteer officer who can be up to 500 miles away to talk through issues, Schellenger said. The officer’s agency won’t know when an employee uses it, he added.
The Texas Legislature in 2021 approved the program’s funding after recognizing a mental-health crisis among first responders. In Texas, 98% of first-responder suicides between 2017 and 2021 were police officers, Schellenger said.
“Our officers routinely witness some of society’s most horrific events,” said state Sen. Royce West, who co-authored the bill that created the program. “Reaching out through the peer network should in no way be considered a sign of weakness.”
The program is the first of its kind in Texas and other states have expressed an interest in creating similar programs, Schellenger said.
Officials said the program can be especially beneficial for smaller departments that don’t have enough resources for a wellness program.
Dallas police earlier this year launched their own wellness initiative, which led to a new unit dedicated to mental health and an additional team of officers who conduct phone call “check-ins” with peers who’ve responded to serious incidents, such as homicides, fatality accidents or crimes involving children.
Dallas police Chief Eddie García said that initiative, paired with the department’s participation in the new state program, is about “changing culture” in an industry known for its suck-it-up mentality. He said healthy officers make fewer mistakes and have better community interactions.
He said the importance of it is ensuring it’s no longer taboo for officers to say, “I have a problem. I have an issue and I need help.”
“This is one of the most important things in American law enforcement that I have seen because it is a true culture change,” García said.
Texas launches first-of-its-kind mental and emotional support group for law enforcement
The state of Texas just launched a first-of-it-kind program where officers are trained to provide anonymous support to other officers for the trauma they face every day.
The Texas Law Enforcement Peer Network, housed at the Caruth Police Institute at UNT Dallas, trains officers to provide mental and emotional help for fellow officers.
“We’ve witnessed too many times the toll it can have on an officer’s career. Not just on the officers themselves, but on their families and homes lives,” said State Senator Royce West (D-Dallas), who co-sponsored the bill that created the program.
Between 2017 and 2021, 98 percent of first responders suicides in Texas were police officers.
“That’s a problem. That’s part of what is driving this need,” said Dustin Schellenger, the state director of the Texas Law Enforcement Peer Network.
Before the legislature created this program more than 70 percent of the state’s law enforcement had no peer counseling.
300 officers have been trained in the special counseling so far.
Officers can use an app to connect with another officer as far as 500 miles away.
Hundreds have signed up for the app since April, 46 of them have sought help with their struggles.
“It’s amazing because it gives officers the ability to be completely anonymous and to reach out for help and have discussions they may not normally have the ability to have,” said Schellenger.
Dallas Police chief Eddie Garcia says he has seen the toll that events like the July 7, 2016 attack that killed four Dallas officers and a DART officer in Downtown Dallas.
“This is one of the most important things in law enforcement that I have seen,” Garcia said. “It is a true culture change from how we did not practice policing many years ago.”