Breaking the Stigma: Providing Mental Health Care to Law Enforcement


If you are a fan of Law and order, you’ve seen several episodes about police officers who have been involved in critical incidents and are personally dealing with what happened. Invariably, officers refuse help and rebel against the system that makes them feel like they have mental issues.

Lt. Matt Wurtz is the training officer for the Habersham County Sheriff’s Office. He remembers when officers were afraid to break the mental health stigma by asking for help. (Photo Margie Williamson)

According to Matt Wurtz, the training officer for the Habersham County Sheriff’s Office, that Law and order The theme does not capture the reality of how law enforcement officers are now treated after critical incidents.

Wurtz, who has spent his entire career in law enforcement, recalls when officers faced mental health stigma if they admitted to needing help coping with things that they they had seen and experienced. This stigma was the norm in the United States and within law enforcement. It has been suggested that this “reluctance to establish a mental health baseline among currently serving officers [was] based on the fear that some of them might be unfit to serve.

Wurtz points out that the stigma of seeking mental health help has been broken and replaced with a new openness to seeking help through mental health professionals.

Kevin Angell, a Habersham deputy, says the people of Habersham “respect us for who we are and what we are”. (Hadley Cottingham/Now Habersham)

Kevin Angell, Public Information Officer and HCSO Investigator, agrees: “The Habersham community has been very supportive of the police here. It comes from community leaders and local authorities. They respect us for who we are and what we are.

This support is seen in the layers of help and accountability that have been built into agency staff. The chain of command includes peer team members, chaplains and professional mental health counsellors. The Sheriff’s Office also has an executive-level staff member who oversees the process as well as an Employee Assistance Program through which officers can receive assistance. According to Angell, officers have the freedom to approach anyone in the chain of command for help without judgment or bias.

“The job of law enforcement is difficult and demanding,” he says. “On a day-to-day basis, officers may potentially face or be involved in violent situations.”

Studies show that law enforcement officers will face at least 188 critical incidents in their lifetime, far more than the average.

Working at this level of anticipated stress can take its toll. According to Angell, most of us will face a maximum of 10 critical incidents or traumatic events in our lifetime. However, according to a 2015 study, police officers face an average of 188 critical incidents in their lifetime. Some studies suggest the number is much higher.

Work-related stress in law enforcement also manifests itself in other ways. According to Wurtz, job retention for officers has declined over the past decade, possibly due to job demands and stress. This makes recruiting new officers even more difficult.

Retention issues may hinge on young officers’ ability to get mental health help when needed.

Attention to law enforcement mental health is a national issue, and progress has been made. Angell shares that the nationwide suicide rate for law enforcement decreased by 5.4% in 2021 and 22% for the same period in 2022.

However, the seriousness of removing the stigma of mental health help-seeking cannot be overstated. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), law enforcement officers have “significantly higher rates of depression, burnout, PTSD and anxiety than the general population.” And more than 35% of police officers have thought about suicide at least once in their lives.

Although the numbers are higher for law enforcement personnel struggling with mental health issues than for the general public, the number of civilian adults and children struggling with mental health issues is also increasing. It is only when the stigma against seeking help for mental health issues is removed that real progress will be seen.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, call the NAMI Hotline at 800-950-NAMI, or in a crisis, text “NAMI” to 741741. To learn more about Mental Health Awareness Month and the mental health resources available to you, visit NAMI online or CDC.

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