By Caleb Groves
Marietta, Ga.– Sally Riddle, Co-founder of the Cobb Coalition for Public Safety, described how a Cobb County Police Department officer trying to help an individual watched as that individual ran into traffic and was hit and killed by oncoming vehicles.
Traumatized by the event, the officer was mandated to take a mental health evaluation and assigned less stressful work by the Cobb County Police Department for the time being, Riddle said.
This is one example of many where police are put in traumatic environments, taking a toll on their mental well-being. Mental health is frequently stigmatized in law enforcement. It is often not discussed and is thrown under the rug because it is easier to suppress it than express the trauma and painful situations police face on a daily basis, Riddle said.
“They’ve seen two dead bodies, They’ve seen a dead child, they’ve seen people crushed, they’ve seen domestic violence, they’ve seen so much in an eight-hour shift,” Monica Nandan, Director of Strategic Partnerships and Social Impact and Professor of Social Work and Human Services at Kennesaw State University said.
However, this older mentality is starting to shift with new initiatives being introduced into police departments, Sandy Springs Police Department Detective Daniel Toby said.
In the past, law enforcement was primarily a male profession, where, stereotypically, men did not talk about their feelings. However, this is starting to shift with more women joining law enforcement, younger generations’ changing attitude toward mental health and new mental health support in law enforcement.
The stigma associated with mental health
“The same type of machoism in the sense of ‘power through, get on with it, do the job,’ that same thing can be found in the military,” Riddle said.
When Chief Marty Ferrell of the Marietta Police Department started his career in the 1990s, society as a whole did not think about or value mental health as much as they do today. It was not as well understood or studied. Now that there is greater awareness, police departments are taking progressive steps to change this stigma, Ferrell said.
The stigma is heightened in the police because the image of police shows them as saviors that ensure safety. If police exhibit mental illness, then we are not safe. So from an officer’s perspective, they cannot show their emotions because if they do, they are endangering the community as a whole, Nandan said.
“Stigma for mental health is not just a police issue; it is a societal issue,” Nandan said.
Wellness rooms and therapy
Ferrell started considering ways he could improve mental health after two officers in the department died by suicide within a year.
“There’s got to be something more we can do as a profession, more we can do as a police department to take care of our people,” Ferrell said.
The Marietta Police Department is addressing this issue through an initiative put in place by Ferrell. The initiative will implement a Mental Health room.
This room will allow police to decompress from their stressful jobs. It will allow officers to reflect on traumatic experiences instead of going from a traumatic call straight to another call, Ferrell said.
Most officers do not want to go home after a traumatic call because they would prefer to talk it over with those who would understand best, their peers. So the wellness room will also be there for officers to process their thoughts and talk them over with their peers, Ferrell said.
The department is also utilizing licensed clinicians to help support officers as well as do annual checkups with all officers, Ferrell said.
The Marietta Police Department has implemented an annual mental health evaluation. Checking up on mental health should be like your annual visit to the doctor; it is a part of your overall well-being, Ferrell said.
Research for mental wellbeing
The Cobb County Police Department conducted a study with Nandan and researchers where they surveyed police to examine health-seeking behaviors and post-traumatic stress disorder markers.
The researchers found that workers who have been in the force for five or fewer years are more likely to seek help than workers who have been in the force for 20 to 30 years. The researchers also found that police were more likely to seek mental health support from peers and family than from employee assistance programs and supervisors, Nandan said.
Peer-to-peer support within the Cobb County Police Department could help police work through the daily mental challenges they face, making it less likely for them to bring home these inner struggles back home to their families, Nandan said.
“Five years ago, this conversation would not have happened,” Nandan said.
The Cobb County Police Department and the Marietta Police Department are both progressive departments in this space. Both departments are trying to make a difference in supporting their officers, Nandan said.
Standing up for wellness
The Cobb County Police Department and the Marietta Police Department are encouraging officers to let upper management know when they are overly stressed or having struggles with performing their job due to mental health issues, Sally Riddle said.
“Within the last ten years or so, there has been a lot more attention paid and focus on mental health support,” Toby said.
Another measure that Riddle and the Cobb Coalition for Public Safety are pushing for is annual mental health evaluations for multiple reasons. One of those reasons, Riddle said, is to help the officers through their stressful jobs. Another reason is to help avoid political extremism.
Other areas where mental health should be considered to a greater degree that is often overlooked are 911 operators and first responders.
“If a police officer is not sleeping well, getting short-tempered, different ways they might react if they do have some PTSD-type symptoms from different things that they’ve experienced, that’s going to impact their family too,” Riddle said.
Organizations like the Georgia Fraternal Order of Police help officers discuss traumatic events with other officers while in a safe space where people can relate to their trauma. This support group and groups like it have greatly helped with mental health in departments, Toby said.
From police to community
“If an officer is not able to attend fully and with emotional stability to their job, that could put the public at risk as well,” Riddle said.
When police are not getting the mental health support they need, it impacts the safety of the community. Police do not have a conversation about how their safety is impacting our safety, Nandan said.
“We have got to take care of ourselves in order to take care of the public,” Ferrell said.
Caleb Groves is a Journalism student at Kennesaw State University, where he is a junior.
Originally from Minnesota, Caleb moved to Georgia with his family, where he now lives in Woodstock with his Father, Stepmom and numerous pets.
When he is not in writing, in class or coaching rock climbing, he spends his time listening to music and rock climbing both indoors and out