Webinar Review: Mental Health Issues in Law Enforcement

In the Mental Health Issues in Law Enforcement webinar, Dr. Mark Kirschner and InTime Account Executive and retired Police Officer, Ricky Rhodes, tackle the issue of mental health in law enforcement and discuss what’s really causing cumulative stress in police officers. 

Dr. Kirschner has over 27 years of experience working with the police and public safety sector. He provides services such as pre-employment psychological evaluation, fitness-for-duty evaluations, critical incident debriefing and more.

This webinar covers three main components:

  1. Underlying causes around the mental health challenges police officers face
  2. Importance of adopting agency OT rules to suit current societal trends and generational differences
  3. Practical solutions that agencies can implement to help alleviate these issues

What are some of the mental health issues police officers face today?

Police officers will always face stressors of the job, traumatic exposure on the job and more. Nowadays, however, the negative portrayal of policing in the media and the stressors on them and their families are really affecting police officers’ mental health. The stressors from the public and the negative portrayal of policing across the country are more prevalent than ever before.

However, there are new issues amongst almost every police department that is causing immense stress: recruitment and retention issues. Police departments are having difficulty with keeping officers on the street due to burnout, particularly for younger officers, and their ability to handle mandatory overtime. All of these factors result in a police officer shortage across police departments nationwide. This police shortage results in officers being overworked, and facing cumulative amounts of stress.

Issues with officers seeking treatment for their stress

There has always been a stigma surrounding mental health help and treatment in law enforcement. Officers are either afraid of being perceived as weak, and unfortunately more often than not, police officers are more willing to suffer than to deal with the negative repercussions or acknowledgement of getting help. While the mental health stigma may be lower now than in past generations, officer suicide is still over 200 per year across the country, which shows law enforcement still has a long way to go in terms of mental health and suicide prevention. Peer support and wellness programs now exist, as do wellness checks, but despite all of this, police mental health issues still exist. 

With law enforcement, it can be difficult for an officer to seek treatment themselves. Because of this, it’s not about getting treatment, but rather it’s about getting the right person for that treatment. Finding the right therapist or counselor is extremely important. It’s difficult talking to others outside law enforcement, because often it feels like they “just don’t get it”. Police officers need someone who can talk about things they relate to and can speak the talk. Ultimately, the officer seeking help needs to be with someone who is culturally competent.

What are some of the underlying causes of mental health issues?

Recruitment and retention is a major issue nowadays. Departments who used to get thousands of applications are now lucky to get a couple hundred of applications. This is a combination of what’s going on in the world of law enforcement and the public perception, but also the generational piece. 

It takes a long time for someone to be a police officer. Usually, once they put the application in, it takes around 18 months. Unfortunately, this commitment level isn’t passed down to the younger generation. The recruitment issue is difficult, and because it takes so long to get accepted, the low recruitment rate doesn’t keep up with the retirement rate. With lower manpower, a scenario with too much overtime is created, resulting in police departments not having enough bodies. 

Police departments are disbanding important units because they need bodies on the street. With the retirement of older officers, younger officers are now able to jump ship and go to the agencies with the best scenario and packages for that moment in time. Retention is very difficult nowadays. This creates a manpower issue, which creates an abundance of overtime which is often being handled with antiquated rules. This creates a morale and burnout issue.

The effect of fatigue, burnout and low work-life balance

Burnout, fatigue and morale tie into general mental health. The reality is there needs to be a better work-life balance for police officers. Overtime is great for police officers financially, but there’s no work life balance when you work that much. There’s a major officer safety issue being created in a profession that requires you to make split-second decisions. This puts officers in an impaired state. They aren’t as sharp and their processing speed is much slower. Not only can this increase the number of exposures, but general interactions with the public can be difficult. Your patience is lower, you’re more irritable and you may speak to citizens in a frustrated tone, which doesn’t help with the negative portrayal of police officers.

Difference between PTSD and cumulation of negative experiences

There’s a difference between PTSD and cumulative stress disorder. Cumulative stress disorder is more common in law enforcement than a PTSD diagnosis. PTSD isn’t as common as people think it is, and it’s more common in first responders and the military. However, even then it’s not as commonplace.

For law enforcement, the biggest issues are substance abuse, depression, family problems and suicide. These are far more prevalent and problematic for the majority of officers than a PTSD diagnosis. Family issues, in particular, tend to be far more problematic amongst police officers. Divorce rate is extremely high in law enforcement, and this is an additional stressor that an officer is bringing into their job.

To combat issues within law enforcement, specifically the overwork part of law enforcement, what are some solutions for agencies to help better manage officer’s access to overtime work or mitigation to overtime work?

Agencies should work with their unions to review the policies they have. Many policies are antiquated and written and done in a time when people would fight for overtime. This was a time when departments were forced to create rules for a more equitable distribution of when overtime was available. These were all well and good then, but now those rules are meaningless because departments have so much overtime and extra duty jobs, so equitable distribution doesn’t matter. 

A lot of departments have a daily limit of overtime, but not many have a weekly limit of how many hours you can work in a row. Departments need better overtime visibility so they can really see how often an officer is working.

The issue of seniority-based mandatory overtime

Seniority-based mandatory overtime is also an issue within police departments. This process creates a lot of burnout for the younger officers. While some departments have limits for mandatory overtime, there still are many issues. Other departments have no seniority rules for mandatory overtime, and this is a bit more equitable, however not as popular for the senior officers who feel as if they have done their overtime time. 

These rules need to be looked at as a group in order to come up with a solution for the profession in terms of officer safety. This also becomes a morale issue as this becomes a domino effect. There’s a 95% chance if you work on a weekend that you will have to work 16 hours. Often you get held over on weekends and this leads people to book off their regular shifts so they don’t have to work overtime and miss important personal events. However, then other officers have to work double overtime to make up for shift coverage.

Important takeaway about mental health issues in law enforcement

One of the main takeaways from this webinar is to focus on helping officers have a better understanding of work-life balance, and how a lack of work-life balance can negatively impact them and their families. It needs to be a group effort, with the department looking out for the officers and officers understanding what they need to do in order to have a better balance.

The bottom line

There’s a lot of work that needs to be done for police officers. Forced overtime and fatigue play a role in affecting police officer mental health. Lack of visibility of all hours worked and planned, when assigning overtime, can cause non-equitable distribution. It’s critical for departments to change and apply rules surrounding mandated overtime, so it’s consistent with today’s issues. Deploying tools and processes that better manage overtime is beneficial for everyone in the police department, from the command staff to the employees.

You can listen to the full webinar here.

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