Blog entry

National Guide Advocates for Police Mental Health Wellness Programs

A new national guide has been released advocating that all police departments implement mental health wellness programs for their officers and building resiliency within their agencies in case of a mass casualty event.
 
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policy Services and the National Alliance on Mental Illness partnered in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. to create the comprehensive guide on how to prepare for, react to, and deal with a mass casualty event in any community. While the guide, Preparing for the Unimaginable: How chiefs can safeguard officer mental health before and after mass casualty events, is primarily geared toward law enforcement agencies and officers, it addresses the roles of all emergency responders.
 
NAMI reached out to the Newtown Police Department in the days after the tragedy that left 26 dead, including 20 first-grade students, to offer support services for its officers and first responders. Newtown Chief of Police John Edwards explained that with all of the demands, pressures, and stresses facing his department in the immediate aftermath, the best support they could provide was to create a comprehensive best-practices guide on how departments should handle a mass casualty event - because there was not one currently available.
 
“U.S. law enforcement has learned from tragic events over the years and now trains to respond to threats with the best equipment and practices known today,” Edwards writes in the introduction to the guide. “However, many chiefs are not prepared to deal effectively with the intense scope and unanticipated duration of the aftermath of these events, and many chiefs are unaware of the impact such events will have on their communities and the officers in their agencies.”
 
Edwards goes on to explain that without a mental health wellness program and proper mental health services in place for officers, cumulative stress or a mass casualty event can lead to post-traumatic stress disorders and other mental health issues among law enforcement officers.
 
“Protecting the health and wellness of officers under our command is as important as any training an officer gets throughout his or her career,” he writes. “Our officers make many sacrifices during their careers, and their emotional well-being should be among our top priorities.”
 
The 162-page guide is a call to action for all police departments and Sheriff’s departments to be prepared in case of a mass casualty event, which it highlights are statistically rare, and to have the tools and infrastructure in place in the rare case of such an event. The guide is organized in three parts: Why Mental Wellness Matters to You and Your Agency; Preparing for a Mass Casualty Event; and, Managing a Mass Casualty Event and its Aftermath. The guide, created by a team of law enforcement officials, mental health professionals, and physicians, also has an appendix with handouts and other resources that can be used and distributed in the event of a mass casualty event.
 
The authors acknowledge that the guide provides a roadmap of best practices on how to plan for and respond to a mass casualty event and understand that different communities and agencies might have other policies and procedures in place that might be in conflict with recommendations in the guide. The guide is designed to have two main functions; as a planning and preparation document, as well as a playbook in how to effectively respond to a mass casualty event in the event a comprehensive plan is not already in place. The main outcome the authors hope the guide will achieve is that it will create dialogue about law enforcement officer wellness and to support chiefs that will inevitably face mass casualty events in the future.
 
The authors strongly recommend that all law enforcement agencies form a work group to recommend officer wellness programs and education. They say having such programs in place can help build resiliency within departments and cut down on future costs like mental health disability claims. They recommend the work groups include command staff, supervisors, union leadership, mental health providers affiliated with the agency, and mental health providers from the broader community. It recommends each work group task itself with four essential roles:
 
• networking with mental health providers;
• assessing what sort of wellness education officers need;
• making recommendations about ongoing officer wellness programs; and,
• making recommendations about changes to policy related to psychological services after critical incidents.
 
The authors note that law enforcement officers are generally strong willed and resilient individuals, but that no one is immune from potential incidents that could trigger mental illness.
 
“While they may be more resilient, law enforcement officers also quietly deal with an outsized share of our society’s violence and death,” they write. “As a result, too many officers struggle with alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. It has become increasingly evident to police leaders that every officer deserves support to deal with the stresses and horrors that are part of the job.”
 
To view the report visit: http://www.nami.org/About-NAMI/Publications-Reports/Public-Policy-Reports/Preparing-for-the-Unimaginable/Preparing-For-The-Unimaginable.pdf