Today, mental health continues to gain more awareness and understanding. But Americans in some of the most high-stress lines of work may be the among the last to seek help.
In particular, law enforcement professionals are exposed to many causes physical, psychosocial and anticipatory stress. Police officers often witness gruesome events, or their aftermath. The experiences can lead to the development of anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Beyond the Numbers
Blue H.E.L.P., an organization advocating for awareness and benefits related to mental health issues in law enforcement, found that in 2019 two times as many officers died of suicide compared to dying in the line of duty. In 2022, 47% of officers who completed a survey conducted by Police1.com screened positive for PTSD. Twenty-nine percent of officers with positive screenings suffered posttraumatic stress in the moderate to severe range.
Sheriff Joey East said law enforcement officers in general try to develop a tough exterior. They may tend to bottle up work stress as they encounter very challenging situations, he noted. Lafayette County deputies are not immune.
“You’re not made to see blood, guts and gore and then go eat lunch with your wife,” East said. “In my career, I’ve lost several officers to suicide and seen a high percentage go through divorce, and you see a lot of them turn to alcohol.”
The stigma of admitting this struggle traditionally has discouraged officers seeking help, East said.
“When I was brought up (in law enforcement), I came up with some hard dudes,” he said. “They said, ‘You don’t talk about any of your issues. You go to work, work, and go home. You’re supposed to be Superman and not talk about if you’re having a hard time at home or drinking too much. I see officers who, when they retire, are so unhealthy. They just carry all this baggage with them and won’t talk to people about it.
“They just aren’t going to go get counseling.”
The Beginning of Better Thinking
East and his team decided to do something to move the needle in a positive direction.
The Sheriff’s Department looked at wellness program options to help officers improve their mental health. East said that when an officer endures a specific traumatic event, the department does seek counseling for the officer. But officers may be reluctant to seek help on their own to talk through effects day-to-day rigors.
The department’s research led them to an app called Cordico, which provides mental health resources for officers, at their fingertips—privately—via smart phone.
Cordico provides users with a wellness toolkit acknowledging 60 behavioral health topics. The resources include videos and guides with information such as about how nutrition affects mental health. The app also connects users with peer support team members and provides contact information for reaching the department’s chaplain and Communicare resources.
“Officers can do a lot of research on their own using the app,” East said. “They can do self-assessments and understand what’s going on. For instance, they may realize they have an issue affecting their life and learn what to watch for and what to do. And they can look at tools such as breathing techniques and workout techniques. There is a lot of material by Dr. Keven Gilmartin, who wrote Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, on hypervigilance.”
Hypervigilance results from officers being in constant state of considering possible outcomes or circumstances. But that heightened state can have emotional consequences if not managed, Gilmartin explains. East said he has seen first-hand one of the problems officers can have from hypervigilance, when the shift is over.
“Dr. Gilmartin describes what we go through all the time,” East said. “You’re out all day looking for bad guys, and then when you get home, you crash. You’re sitting in your chair watching TV, and your wife asks what you want to eat for dinner, and you say, ‘I don’t care.’ You don’t want to make any decisions when you get home.”
Cordico is free for officers (active and retired), as well as for their spouses and children.
Working It Out
Another element of the wellness program at the Sheriff’s Department, complementing the use of Cordico, is the October 2022 addition of a weight room at the department.
“It’s really nice, and we will be adding some cardio equipment,” East said. “For me, one of the biggest outlets I’ve ever had is working out. So, we are looking at alternatives for them.”
The wellness program is a holistic effort, East said. In addition to teaching officers’ new ways to frame their emotions with Cordico and giving them a place for a good workout to blow off steam and be healthier, the department is looking into educational opportunities on financial matters—another potential source of anxiety.
With the weight room brand-new and the department just beginning to use the app in September 2022, East and his team are still getting the word out and encouraging officers to explore what the wellness program has to offer.
“Officers don’t make enough money, and, especially now, times are tough,” East said. “We’re going to help them. At a lot of agencies, when you say you’re doing a ‘wellness program’, people think you’re just going to make them work out. No, we’re also going to help them use their minds.”