Law enforcement officers are increasingly asked to recognize and de-fuse mental health crises, but who is looking out for the officers themselves? Nationwide, suicide has become the leading cause of death in the law enforcement community and, having long since recognized the need to put a premium on mental health, the Georgetown Police Department has comprehensive programs and support in place.
Chief Cory Tchida explains, “It begins as early as the recruiting ads that sell the just cause. People see videos filled with high-speed adrenaline things that don’t happen on a daily basis. We know it is important that every officer is able to assimilate the unexpected as they learn the reality of the day-to-day job.”
EVERY OFFICER’S WHY
The chief says, in interviews, most chiefs ask a recruit why he or she wants to be in law enforcement and the answer is usually, because I want to help people. “Many jobs help people,” the Chief says. “I always ask why they want to help people in this job; that is the real why.”
Chief Tchida understands that, like him, everyone has a personal reason for wanting to be a first responder—perhaps a negative childhood experience with an abusive family member, or a positive interaction with an officer who saved the day. “My job is to observe and build on things that will make the job good for each person. It is a very challenging career so it’s not so much about job happiness but job fulfillment.”
THE GIVE AND TAKE
The Chief says officers’ mental health is a balance between what the job gives and also takes away; helping strangers on their worst day versus missed family events. Police officers’ life expectancy is 21.9 years lower than average and 25 percent of officer deathers are caused by suicide. “Over the past decade, we’ve paid attention to how hard this job is. Every department is facing stress from being understaffed, negative press, and general fatigue. The wellness issue crosses physical, mental, and spiritual lines so we have created solutions appropriate for each.”
As such, GPD’s sworn officers receive comprehensive physicals annually, including cardiovascular and cancer screenings in alternate years. As well, the Safety Center has a robust fitness facility and officers are provided one hour of on-duty workout time during each shift to increase their resiliency to stress.
The department has also contracted with a therapist whom anyone on staff may see at any time, no questions asked. “Mental health help used to carry a stigma but there was a sense that seeing bad stuff was just part of the job, so many people were hesitant to be treated,” the Chief says. “It was crazy that we did that to people because it ignored the reality of being human. We now understand that officers need mechanisms to deal with negativity and smash the stigma of asking for help.”
“It’s okay to not be okay.”
As more tools are made available to all first responders, chiefs and other leaders are eager to know if officers are not okay. Chief Tchida says, “If you’re not, we will do everything to help you get there because this job is all about how we treat others. Stress affects how we relate to others so the healing begins with how we treat ourselves.”