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Staying Mentally Sound During the Coronavirus Pandemic: Tips for Police Officers

Between the pandemic and social unrest, police officers have a lot on their plates — potentially leading to excessive stress and other mental health issues. What steps can we take to address the mental health needs in law enforcement?

1. Understand why people are so angry.

There’s a lot of anger directed at law enforcement agencies right now, and if you examine the Bureau of Justice statistics, you’ll see why. Police brutality and police-related killings are alarming issues in the United States — and minorities are disproportionately affected. In a study based on data from the U.S. Department of Justice, researchers at the Treatment Advocacy Center found that mental illness also plays a large role in fatal police encounters. Their study showed that people experiencing severe mental illness make up:

  • One in ten police calls
  • One in five inmates in jails and prisons
  • One in four of fatal police encounters

That last statistic means that the risk of being killed by police is 16 times greater for mentally ill individuals, compared to other citizens. Unfortunately, these numbers only scratch the surface of the disparities that exist in our criminal justice system. Law enforcement officers should diligently research these issues, as well as the system’s foundations in slavery. Know that it is a large, complicated issue that has less to do with you as it does an overall system of injustice. By understanding these problems, police officers can navigate these times with a more objective lens and feel less personally attacked (and stressed).

2. Take time to decompress.

Even before the pandemic hit, a career in public safety was no walk in the park. Now there are added risks, as first responders are potentially exposed to the virus more than most people. Too much stress can take a toll on a person, so it’s essential to take time to decompress and practice some self-care. Along with other mental health resources (including a crisis text line), police officers can find self-care tips specific to their needs. Some of these tips include:

  • Try not to bring your work home with you, and instead do an activity you enjoy or spend time with family.
  • Find a confidant to process your feelings with — like a family member, counselor, or faith leader.
  • Try to spend a few minutes each day practicing deep breathing or other wellness exercises.
  • Take things day-by-day, or even hour-by-hour.

It’s important to manage your stress before it snowballs into more significant problems, like anxiety and high blood pressure. Keep in mind that despite lingering stigmas, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with seeing a mental health counselor if you’re overwhelmed or experiencing severe issues like PTSD.

3. Know your limits.

Many law enforcement agencies are stretched thin due to COVID-related workforce shortages, which means more officers are working overtime to ensure proper coverage. There’s a limitation to how much one human being can handle, though, and overworking is a significant factor in fatal fatigue. Designed for police departments and Sheriffs’ offices, law enforcement management software is a simple but effective solution to this problem. This robust police management system allows administrators to proactively plan for future staffing gaps, create a schedule with built-in anti-fatigue rules, implement PPE protocols and training, and adjust financially and operationally to government defunding efforts.

The phrase “defund the police” has gained a lot of steam recently, and like most things, it sounds worst than it is. We currently expect local police departments to fix just about all of the problems in their communities, including mental illness. While crisis intervention training and collaboration with mental health officials can improve outcomes, some argue that it isn’t something the police should necessarily be involved in at all. By re-distributing duties (and funds) to other social programs, police officers can focus on keeping the peace.

Denver’s STAR program is an excellent example of diverting these responsibilities away from police officers. Instead of law enforcement, a mental health professional and a paramedic respond to certain mental-illness related 911 calls. The goal is to get people the help they need while freeing up officers to respond to other calls. With just a few months under its belt, so far it’s working — with the STAR van responding to over 350 calls and making zero requests for police backup. Denver’s Chief Paul Pazen described the program as “the future of law enforcement.”

Navigating these tumultuous times is beyond challenging, but you must take care of your mental health along the way. Know when to delegate to a mental health professional, gain some perspective, and practice self-care.