Sponsored Content: The Past, Present, and Future of Officer Wellness
In the early days of law enforcement officer wellness training, public safety focused heavily on psychological testing and physical capability to identify successful candidates. It focused training on technical skills, weapons readiness, uniform preparedness and the culture of being a cop. Over time, psychologists assigned to larger police departments focused on curriculum development and training methods.
By the early 1960s, departments saw the impact of urban unrest and combat exposure on officers with military experience. They began realizing that trauma could carry over into policing. Larger departments hired psychologists on staff to support the officers. Smaller departments would contract out to “trusted” professionals in private practice as needed.
As policing evolved in the 70’s and 80’s, and the demands of the profession became more and more physical, an emphasis on fitness surged within the profession. Sports teams emerged and physical fitness equipment showed up in departments.
But officers were on their own when it came to addressing diet, exercise, family life balance, and the increasing stress associated with more and more complex calls. Very few departments allocated funding towards wellness programs, despite the demand. The competition for shrinking budget dollars was fierce between equipment needs, infrastructure and wellness. As in many organizations, wellness was often the first to go.
But police officers are creative. They tend to trust other officers before trusting an outside professional. Peer support teams flourished in the wake of tightening budgets and increasing needs.
Across the profession, however, the approach was disjointed. Physical, mental, social, financial, and spiritual wellness were siloed. Efforts lacked standards. Resources were few to support police officers willing to build a culture of wellness within their organizations. And the rates of suicide in law enforcement continued to rise. The International Association of Police Chiefs (IACP) recognized the looming problems and established officer health and wellness initiatives to support organizations around the globe. These initiatives include various federally funded programs, as well as the Officer Safety and Wellness Section and the Officer Safety and Wellness Symposium, which have both grown tremendously each year, highlighting the prioritization of the topic.
Today, this effort has expanded to many others, including the National Consortium on Preventing Law Enforcement Suicide, standards for wellness programs, recommendations for leadership and others. The lessons learned and best practices from the IACP are helping other public safety associations develop similar programs and opportunities for their first responder populations.
Challenging the Status Quo
The IACP is a founding member of the FirstNet Health and Wellness Coalition, working alongside multiple public safety organizations to help identify and address the pressing health and wellness needs of first responders. Some of these priorities include post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic growth, depression and self-harm, physical fitness, stress management, and family member and leadership engagement.
The concept of wellness in law enforcement is a growing movement. More and more responders are engaging in the dialogue. And the status quo is no longer an adequate response to increasing operational tempo, work and family stressors, community unrest and increasingly complex environments.
The future of officer safety and wellness is what author Adam Grant calls “rethinking” the issues we are facing. Rethinking means to challenge our beliefs about a problem, throw out assumptions and explore problems like a scientist testing a hypothesis. It means integrating ideas from other disciplines and trying new solutions. The definition of insanity is repeatedly trying the same thing over and over again and assuming a different outcome. Solving the problems of suicide, post-traumatic stress, stress management and organizational and family engagement will take all of us contributing to the solution and taking action.
The Future Of Wellness
The future of wellness is in continued collaboration across public, private, and nonprofit sectors. We need to recapture personal agency in decisions about our health and wellness. We need to not be afraid to boldly reach out and be each others’ keeper. We need to reclaim human connection. The future of wellness is about democratizing the struggle. It’s owning the struggle as a part of the human condition and forging a path of growth anyway.
The future of officer wellness includes integrating wellness training into an officer’s capacity to respond. The future of wellness includes digital interactions. But it will also require human-to-human connection. The future of wellness includes a life of service to each other, our communities, and those we serve. It includes care of self and a holistic approach. The future of wellness includes the agency culture and leadership that addresses health at all levels and units within that organization. The future of wellness is all these things because wellness weaves itself throughout all aspects of life.
We can no longer silo wellness into a separate department. We can’t make it the last line item on the budget, give it trite labels and assign misunderstood diagnoses. We cannot make it the last thing individuals think of when they think of themselves.
The future of wellness is each one of us.
Dr. Anna Courie is a nurse, Army wife, university faculty, and author. Dr. Courie has worked for over 25 years in the health care profession including Bone Marrow Transplant, Intensive Care, U.S. Army Public Health, and Health Promotion practice. Dr. Courie holds a Bachelor’s in Nursing from Clemson University; a Master’s in Nursing Education from the University of Wyoming; and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from Ohio State University. Dr. Courie’s area of expertise is integration of public health strategy across disparate organizations to achieve health improvement goals.