A staggering 90% of police officers surveyed reported stigma as a barrier to seeking mental health help. Some of that stigma stems from what they, and other people in public safety, witness as part of their jobs.
“Just as the general public has stigmas surrounding mental health, public safety officers have even greater stigma,” says Eric Weaver, a Mental Health First Aid National Trainer. Weaver is also the executive director of Overcoming the Darkness, an organization that works to reduce stigma and offer mental health support and resources to law enforcement.
“Mental health stigma in law enforcement is often caused by the officer’s distorted perception of what mental illness is,” Weaver explained. “Officers respond to crisis scenes daily involving people with mental health challenges. We don’t respond to the millions of individuals who live with mental health challenges who don’t need police intervention — we only respond to people who do. As police respond to people in crisis, we see individuals at their worst, who are sometimes suicidal and/or violent, which simply increases the stigma of mental illness for officers.”
Weaver says most police academies offer mental health training, but it’s not enough in terms of quantity and frequency. MHFA’s community-specific course MHFA for Public Safety can be the solution for that.
“MHFA for Public Safety allows officers and other public safety personnel the opportunity to learn much more than they would ever learn in an academy-type setting, especially since most officers being trained in this module have long been out of the academy,” Weaver said. “The curriculum creates a chance for officers to really understand the importance of empathy, compassion and respect for those living with mental health challenges.”
One way MHFA dismantles stigmas is by teaching that most mental health challenges are medical conditions. When officers learn that depression or panic attacks, for example, may be diagnosable and not a sign of weakness, they are more likely to respond to a call or a peer with more empathy. They are also more likely to seek treatment for themselves should they need it.
“This stigma unfortunately plays a huge role in officers not getting or seeking treatment for their own challenges, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Officers often do not reach out for help because of the stigma of being seen as weak,” Weaver said.
Careers that have high levels of occupational stress, such as law enforcement, have a 250% increased likelihood of PTSD.
“MHFA for Public Safety curriculum identifies the tremendous need for officers to tend to their own mental health challenges,” Weaver stressed. “With police suicide rates, substance use rates, domestic violence rates etc. being much higher than many other professions, the importance of self-care for officers themselves is a vital part of the curriculum. If officers are able to take care of their own mental health, they can create a positive role model for other officers to follow, which will eventually help save lives, careers and families.”
Ask most public safety officers why they got into law enforcement, and you’ll likely get the same answer: to help people. But with the high stressors of the job and the constant exposure to violence and trauma, many officers feel like they aren’t making a dent. Weaver, however, saw the impact MHFA for Public Safety had on one officer.
“After taking a course, the officer told me that from what he learned in the course, he felt he can truly do what he signed up for as an officer to do, and that is to actually and truly help people. That was so powerful to hear and a testimony to the course.”
Find a MHFA for Public Safety course near you, and #BeTheDifference for the people who work every day to make a difference in our local communities.
Drew, J.M. & Martin, S. (2021). A national study of police mental health in the USA: Stigma, mental health and help-seeking behaviors. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 36, 295–306. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11896-020-09424-9.
Mental Health First Aid. (2020). Mental Health First Aid USA. National Council for Behavioral Health d/b/a National Council for Mental Wellbeing.
Syed, S., Ashwick, R., Schlosser, M., et al. (2020). Global prevalence and risk factors for mental health problems in police personnel: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 77(11), 737-747.