Officer Wellness – Is it the Elephant in the Room at Your Agency? [Video]

Police being called to a scene

The life expectancy of a police officer is 20 years less than their civilian counterpart. Also, the average age of a law enforcement officer who has suffered a heart attack is 49 years, compared to 67 years for the general population – Cops Alive, August 31, 2015

Police work can be very risky; and the mainstream often overlooks the dangerous amount of stress that comes with the job. First responders often witness some of the most tragic events in our world. Research indicates that this stress has a detrimental effect on police officers.

According to the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI), nearly 1 in 4 police officers have had suicidal thoughts at some point in their career. NAMI also reports that in 2017 there were an estimated 140 law enforcement suicides. Also, compared to the general population, law enforcement officers had significantly higher rates of depression, PTSD, burnout, and other anxiety related mental health conditions.

In addition to stress related mental illness, addiction is also a serious threat to officer wellness. In March of 2018, Psychology Today reported that 25% of police officers on the street have an alcohol or drug abuse issue. Similarly, they found that substance abuse disorders affected between 20% and 30% of police officers while only affecting under 10% of the general population.

It is critical for all agencies to develop a resilient policy to help prevent a mental health crisis. In other words, as one of the six pillars of the 21st Century Policing Task Force, officer wellness and safety must be a priority. Unfortunately, many agencies have struggled to roll-out wellness initiatives. Issues with cost, staffing, cultural buy in, or a lack of local resources all affect the success of a wellness program. However, the costs of having a high percentage of illness and burnout in an agency can be detrimental in the long run.

This looming crisis cannot be overlooked.

A Success Story: Great Falls Police Department Works Towards Wellness

The Great Falls Police Department has been a shining example of an agency on the right track to ensure officer health and wellness. They’ve implemented a 3-part wellness program that involves physical and mental well being and found great success. However, this success has not come without challenges. Hear GFPD Captain John Schaffer discuss how his department is successfully working through these hurdles.

Great Falls Police Department has implemented a program

What is cumulative stress?

In the video above, Captain Schaffer explains cumulative stress by giving a great metaphor called “Cop Stew”. A career in law enforcement can be like a pot on a stove with the flame on high. If you’re not careful, that pot can boil over as a result of any traumatic call, crash, or trauma-related event.

What are some warning signs that an officer might be struggling with cumulative stress?

It can be difficult to recognize warning signs because everyone has had different life experiences. Asking simple questions can be very effective. For example, “I’m noticing some little behavioral changes in how your conducting yourself on the job. Is everything OK?”. Also, you can learn a lot about an officer’s well being by asking, “how are you sleeping?”.

How is the Great Falls Police Department dealing with cumulative stress?

Great Falls Police Department tried to take a proactive approach. Education has been a crucial part of their strategy. Their department is working to build an awareness of how an officer can go through major changes in their career. Nobody in law enforcement is the same now as when they started. It is very important to involve the spouses and significant others as part of the solution. They’re usually the first to know that something is not right.

What is the Great Falls Police Department doing to build a solid wellness program?

There are three areas that they focus on: physical fitness, physical health, and mental health.

First, keeping yourself in good condition is crucial to not only your job, but to life as well. Secondly, having an insurance plan that provides incentives for using healthcare services helps ensure that officers are taking care of their physical health. As a result of services such as cancer screenings and blood pressure checks, officers are more likely to stay fit for duty. Finally, encouraging mental health check-ups is a very proactive way to safeguard an officer’s well-being.


Captain John Shaffer has shared his expertise on officer wellness, recruitment and retention with attendees of IEN conferences. See what current events Insight Exchange Network is producing in Public Safety and Government.

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