Bringing Mental Health Awareness Month to Your Agency
Take some time to look around and look within
Since its creation in 1949 by the Mental Health America organization, Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed every May, and it’s more relevant in 2023 than ever before. Nearly 20% of US adults struggle with mental illness, and that percentage is even higher for first responders. For these professionals, the intense and often dangerous nature of their daily jobs can lead to increased rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD, yet these struggles are frequently overlooked.
The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Month is “Look around, look within.” By creating ongoing mental health and wellness initiatives and providing first responders with the resources they need, you can help keep your department at its best and ready to handle the myriad challenges that go along with the job.
Celebrating Mental Health Awareness Month
This year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Month highlights how our surroundings can affect our mental health. Naturally, this includes places of employment, and there are several steps agencies can take to support the well-being of their first responders.
Set aside time for weekly discussions
Call it Mindfulness Monday or Wellness Wednesday; the name doesn’t matter as much as the purpose. Weekly mental health meetings are an effective way to break down the stigma and keep the conversation going. These check ins are also the perfect time to remind your team how to access available resources.
Be sure to promote these weekly sessions through your agency-wide channels: newsletters, posters, eBlast or team meetings. If scheduling conflicts or other incidents prevent the meetings from taking place in person, consider a pre-recorded webinar format so that officers can still get the support they need when their schedule allows.
Create a gratitude board
Along with social support and resilience, practicing gratitude has been credited with lessening feelings of depression and breaking negative thought cycles. Displaying a gratitude board in your agency and encouraging members to add messages is an easy way to introduce this practice to first responders.
These gratitude messages can be left on a poster board with markers and sticky notes – whatever best suits your setup. Include a prompt that encourages everyone at the agency to add statements of their own such as ‘How do you keep your mental health in check?’ or ‘What techniques help you stay mentally fit?’. This will help promote gratitude as a resiliency technique that ultimately leads to better mental health outcomes. Learn more about gratitude and why it is a helpful practice for first responders.
Try a different kind of happy hour
There’s nothing like a round of shots to bring a group together – wellness shots, that is. Wellness shots are typically one to three ounces of a juice blend that give the body a “concentrated source of nutrients” quickly and easily. For example, turmeric helps reduce inflammation and ginger helps with gut health.
While they’re not a miracle cure, the nutrients in wellness shots have physical and mental health benefits. These shots can be especially beneficial for first responders as the erratic schedules of shift work can be a challenge to a healthy diet. Consider buying nutrient-rich juice in bulk and dispensing these shots a few times a week, creating opportunities for socialization among peers that don’t hinge on alcohol consumption like more traditional happy hours.
Schedule therapy dog drop-ins
Canines have long been members of the squad, but they’re not always there to sniff out contraband or assist in search and rescue efforts. In recent years, police therapy dogs have grown in popularity, with 50,000 working in the US as of 2022. Therapy dogs, which can be just about any breed as long as they have the right temperament, have numerous mental health benefits, such as reducing anxiety and stress while alleviating feelings of loneliness and sadness.
If your agency has a therapy dog, take advantage of this valuable resource by scheduling drop-ins with your team. These sessions can be casual; therapy dogs can join the meeting during roll call, attend ride-alongs, or have regular “office hours” when first responders can expect to find them at the station. If you want to implement a therapy dog program at your agency, the first steps are getting leadership buy-in, establishing funding and reviewing liability concerns, after which you can partner with a training center to find the right candidates. Learn more about therapy dog programs with LT Sharp and Jack.
Additional resources and tools
The suggestions above will help your agency get involved during Mental Health Awareness Month, but those conversations shouldn’t stop after May. Here are some ways to ensure that first responders have access to additional resources that can help them develop and practice wellness tactics even when they’re away from the office.
Resiliency techniques are exercises that help first responders reduce stress and prioritize mental health in the field, including:
Tactical breathing: To avoid fight-or-flight responses during calls, Grand Prairie Police Department Crisis Support Supervisor Courtney Runnels recommends using breathing exercises that improve physiological and psychological performance by relaxing the body. This technique only requires 10-20 minutes and is easily incorporated into a daily routine.
Meditation: This centuries-old practice is used to clear, calm and focus the mind. Meditation can be done in groups or solo, with variations including breath meditation, walking meditation, mantra meditation and body-scan meditation.
Grounding: Grounding is sometimes associated with meditation, but it primarily refers to getting your body into a state of being mentally and emotionally stable. As Runnels puts it, “A calm and relaxed brain can’t hold fear, anxiety and depression,” making this simple method of using your senses to identify your surroundings an effective one.
Nonsworn personnel support
Though not in the field, nonsworn roles like dispatch and BWC admins often deal with similar stressors as their sworn colleagues. According to Sarah Beth Hataway, the Communications Supervisor at the Garland Police Department, these roles have “an enormous amount of responsibility and pressure,” which is why it’s critical to ensure nonsworn personnel are also getting the mental health and wellness resources they need.
In Hataway’s case, that meant building a wellness department geared specifically towards supporting dispatchers who are “living other people’s emergencies”. This includes crimes committed against other officers captured on body-worn cameras, as was the case with Jennifer Brown, a Communications and Information Systems Manager with over 25 years of experience in various law enforcement roles. In Brown’s case, she felt compelled to offer support for nonsworn personnel at various agencies so they didn’t have to feel alone after critical incidents. “It’s okay to reach out,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re sworn or civilian… people are here for you.”
Mental health is different for everyone, but you can support your team's efforts with vetted expert resources they can digest at their own pace. For example, Axon Aid’s Science of Trauma video series features Dr. Erika Sallee, PT, DPT, a physical therapist and program director, and Dr. Brenda Tillman, LPC-S PhD, a counselor and program director. These videos help officers minimize the effects of personal triggers, understand the impact of stress on the brain, and find their own resilience strategies.
Vetted material like, "The Science of Trauma series" are critical because, as Dr. Tillman puts it, “There are no two people who experience trauma in the same way, and there are no two people who are going to go through it and handle it in the same way.” The more resources your agency has, the better the chance that your fellow first responders will find techniques that work for them.
Celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month with Axon Aid
The key to mental well-being is knowing that you aren’t in this fight alone – and that’s true for the people building support systems too. Axon Aid supports first responders through no cost resources focusing on emergency response, charity and wellness. With a plethora of ways to help your agency members prioritize their mental health, from resiliency techniques to ways to build a wellness department, Axon Aid aims to be a true partner to public safety. Get in touch to learn more.
Walden University, https://www.waldenu.edu/programs/criminal-justice/resource/five-reasons-the-mental-health-of-police-officers-needs-to-be-a-priority
OSF Healthcare, https://www.osfhealthcare.org/blog/wellness-shots-are-they-worth-a-shot/
Azusa Pacific University, https://www.apu.edu/articles/apu-alumna-changes-hearts-and-minds-by-incorporating-therapy-dogs-into-law-enforcement/
Alliance of Therapy Dogs, https://www.therapydogs.com/the-surprising-benefits-of-therapy-dogs-this-2022/