Law enforcement can offer great pay and benefits, but to hire and retain the best of the best the people taking care of the community must know the community cares about them. That includes caring about their emotional and psychological well-being as well as their physical well-being.
A trend we have seen over the last few years is that most officers leaving our departments do not go to work at other law enforcement agencies. They get out of law enforcement.
Many of them cite the stress of the job. The stressors are not only what officers deal with on calls but what the job brings into their personal lives.
When law enforcement leaders talk about hiring and retention, officer wellness is at the top of the list. We must take care of the people doing the job so that they can take care of us, because the job takes a toll on their emotional health. First responders deal with everyone else’s crisis of the day, but they also need help with issues in their personal and professional lives.
Agencies traditionally provide mental health services through employee assistance programs, but they are woefully underused. There is a stigma that first responders to crises are weak if they seek help. Traditionally in agency culture, first responders are those who help others, and not those who need help.
Cops, firefighters and EMS professionals fear it will adversely affect their careers if it’s known they are getting help with mental health issues. We try to get the message across that it’s not true; it’s OK not to be OK, and getting help is encouraged and won’t hurt your career.
Another challenge with traditional services is that providers don’t have a relationship with first responders, the kind of relationship that would make those seeking help feel comfortable.
In our discussions about officer wellness, two things stick out. Services should be provided by mental health professionals who are former first responders or who have specialized training, because first responders will relate to those who are like them or understand them. And access to services anonymously is essential to people seeking help.
Earlier this year, we established Mental Health for Heroes, and on Wednesday we announced the formal launch of the organization and its services. It is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing funding for cost-free, anonymous and specialized mental health services to the Pinellas County first responder community.
Mental Health for Heroes (HEROES) is already providing services for over 50 current members of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. It is funded through some grants, but primary funding has come — and needs to continue coming — from the community. There is no more important service government provides than keeping the community safe, and to do that effectively we have to take care of the people doing that on the front line every day.
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Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is vice chairperson of Mental Health for Heroes (HEROES), a nonprofit, charitable organization dedicated to providing services to law enforcement officers, firefighters and paramedics in Pinellas County.