It’s no surprise that law enforcement officers and other first responders are at a higher risk of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder than other professions — and in greater need of diligent emotional self-care.

“This is a tremendous career, but one that comes with stress that can accumulate over time, “making mental and physical health vigilance vital to burnout,” says Lt. Tim Gately, principal professor for the Criminal Justice program at City University of Seattle, who also has a career in law enforcement. “You’re constantly exposed to human suffering and tragedy. You may be required to risk your life, and then must respond to trauma with care, judgment and professionalism. You must make skillful, delicate and sometimes high-risk decisions. Then, you inevitably live with doubts and uncertainty about some of those split-second decisions you make every day.”

While law enforcement officers are exposed to more intense stress on a daily basis than the average citizen, self-care recommendations that help first responders cope with stress offer lessons for us all.

Break the stigma of getting help

There is a stigma around getting mental health care that is not unique to law enforcement professionals. Although an estimated one in five adults in the U.S. suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions, a recent CBS news poll revealed that over half of Americans believe individuals with mental health disorders experience discrimination.

“The stigma of seeking help for mental health is particularly difficult for law enforcement first responders who are trained, and rightly so, to be fully present and prepared to help others 24/7,” says Susie Kroll, a mental health professional who works as a first responder with police departments throughout Puget Sound. She assists with crisis assessment, de-escalation, service referrals and case management. “The problem is, many first responders back seat their own mental health needs. They ignore or deny their feelings. They may feel it makes them look weaker or less capable to ask for help. The truth is, we need to have the same attitude regarding self-care that we have about helping others. That’s a huge part of being at our best.”

Participate in peer support

“Many times, it’s easier to talk about an emotional issue to a peer who knows what you’re going through than a friend or spouse, or even a professional counselor,” Kroll says. Police departments in Puget Sound have an active peer support team that includes employees who have been trained to provide confidential assistance to other employees during times of challenging professional or personal crisis. This may include relationship issues at home or at work, alcohol or substance abuse, financial issues, illness, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues. 

Practice routine mental health maintenance

“We make sure the tires on our car are inflated and there’s gas in the tank, to prevent problems, so why would preventive mental health care be any different?” says Kroll, who has been seeing a counselor for over a decade.

Some Puget Sound Police Departments are beginning to implement routine mental health checkups for their officers and other employees. The goal is twofold: First, to “normalize” the act of visiting a mental health professional, thus reducing the stigma against seeking mental health care; and second, to identify and address potential issues early on.

Incorporate self-care into daily habits

Well-being is multilayered, requiring a variety of healthy lifestyle habits — from diet and exercise, to balancing work and family, to making time for community involvement outside of work.

“One of the best things I do for myself is try being patient and compassionate,” Kroll says. “I may not make the right choices perfectly every time but I’m patient and compassionate with myself and know I will continue to do better each day. So much of self-care does not just incorporate eating right, sleeping, and getting exercise but also knowing that self-care is a mindset, setting appropriate boundaries, and saying yes to things that are restorative and know two things that drain us below our reserves.”

Gately finds that maintaining a sense of connection to family, friends, athletics, school, and church outside of the law enforcement community provides balance and a sense of stability that can be relied upon to maintain an appropriate work-life balance.

How you can help

Community members can support their local police officers in a variety of simple ways, starting with a simple smile and hello. Most officers are happy to answer questions you and your children may have when the questions are posed in a positive manner. “Many of us have kids and enjoy teaching our next generation about careers in law enforcement and criminal justice,” says Gately, who recommends introducing yourself and your kids when you see officers in a neighborhood park or coffee shop.

On a more global scale, many police departments are supported by volunteers and nonprofit organizations and foundations, similar to the Redmond Police Foundation. Consider getting involved at your local department as a volunteer, attend a community citizens academy, or donate your time and talent to a local police foundation. Youth can also volunteer through Explorer programs, where they can volunteer to help the community while learning about law enforcement and the criminal justice system. You can also become involved by attending hosted events, such as National Night Out Against Crime, Coffee with a Cop, or Neighborhood Watch.

City University of Seattle is a private nonprofit university accredited through the doctoral level. It has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the Top 50 in the country for its online bachelor’s degree programs for eight consecutive years.