Research explores how law enforcement uses mental health resources

An interdisciplinary collaboration between two East Carolina University faculty researchers sheds new light on the mental health of law enforcement officers.

Dr. Allison Crowe, Professor of counselor educationcombined her expertise in mental health stigma with the law enforcement knowledge of Dr. Heidi Bonner, Associate Professor of criminal justiceto publish two articles on police mental health needs and programming.

“There’s a lot of research on how law enforcement needs to come into contact with mental health in their work,” Crowe said. “However, there really wasn’t much on the general welfare of law enforcement officers themselves, which is why we wanted to look at that as a topic.”

Bonner, left, and Crowe’s work was published earlier this year in the Journal of Crime and Justice and the journal Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research.

Posted in the Journal of Crime and Justice in March and Journal of Mental Health Administration and Policy Research and Mental Health Services in January, their work surveyed agencies across the United States to see what resources and programs were available to agents.

“Law enforcement officers are the first responders and oftentimes I don’t know if their mental health is considered as much in terms of the type of work they do,” Bonner said. “You want law enforcement that is mentally healthy and resilient and knows how to handle the horrible things they see or experience.”

Throughout their research, several program options were consistently mentioned, including employee assistance programs, stress management training, and counseling—both peer support and professional help. .

“It’s good to see a lot of agencies devoting time and attention to this,” Bonner said. “What came out of our study is that young officers in particular are much more open to this type of training and assistance, to asking for help and to voicing their concerns.”

These sentiments were echoed by local police departments, such as the Greenville Police Department (GPD). Captain Tara Stanton helps lead mental health initiatives across GPD and believes a holistic approach that combines mental, financial and social health is essential.

“The more mental health information you post, the more acceptable it becomes,” she said.

Although professional counseling is a service offered by many organizations, the researchers and Stanton agreed that peer-to-peer mentoring can often be more effective. According to Stanton, there is a level of cultural competence that therapists and counselors will need to possess to fully understand the unique situations law enforcement officers face.

“One of the things we’ve heard over and over again is that your counselor, therapist, or psychologist really needs to understand the culture,” Crowe said. “They have to have a style that matches.”

The ECU Police Department also uses a program to offer employees emotional support and assistance, according to ECU Police Captain Chris Sutton.

“Law enforcement officers tend to bury their emotions under their many different layers and repress them throughout their careers and sometimes their lives,” he said. “I believe many may suffer from some level of undiagnosed PTSD, depression and frustration.”

To help combat some of these issues, Captain Stanton of the GPD helps lead a welfare committee made up of officers and civilian volunteers who polled the force and held two interactive events a month. They also maintain an internal communications blog that shares relevant events, resources, and articles with agents. The police department is also launching an app that will contain resources, including a national peer-to-peer mentoring network.

This aligns with Bonner and Crowe’s research, which showed that agencies are engaged and open about their desire to provide more resources to their agents. Potential next steps in their research involve further examination of current practices being implemented.

“The research we did only scratched the surface, as it was a descriptive overview of what was happening across the country,” Bonner said. “It would certainly be interesting to explore this question further, but also to know if the agencies have certain types of programs, how effective are they? What do their officers think?


Donald E. Patel