"To augment or supplement professional mental health services, an increasing number of police departments have instituted peer support programs for the psychological aftermath of officer-involved shootings and other critical incidents" (Miller, 2006). However, the usefulness of the PSP goes beyond just critical incident related stress.
Stress is the key word. Positive stress, as a survival tool, is essential in life. Negative stress can create many health related problems such as memory loss, difficulty making decisions, forgetfulness, troubled interpersonal relationships, self-destructive behavior, emotional problems. Departments that train 12 or more of their personnel through VaPSA can utilize our consultation and tools for selection and vetting of appropriate peers. (Contact us for details)
"Effective" Peer Support reduces the negative stressors in and/or assists in positive coping.
Law enforcement and emergency services professionals face two general types of stress that are sizable and unique when compared to other professions.
The first type of stress is the chronic exposure to trauma, violence, horrific events, and crime scenes. The second type of stress is internal or organizational stress such as policy changes, demanding shift schedules, lack of perceived support from the organization, favoritism in promotional decisions and discipline and an imperfect legal system.
Under this load, there is a tendency for many emergency service professionals to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol or other substances, gambling, infidelity or philandering, overeating, over spending, etc., to help cope with their chronic exposure to trauma and organizational challenge.
Knowing this population is at risk is one thing, but offering meaningful prevention is difficult because of the law enforcement culture.
Because the culture of law enforcement is exclusive in nature and cynical of outsiders, officers who are struggling with stress related issues often go-it- alone or turn to a peer for support. This cultural factor in law enforcement makes peer support services a natural help-seeking pathway.
Peer supporters therefore occupy a support niche that cannot be filled by EAP, health plan provisions or even a police staff psychologist. If peers are trained to offer support, they can be highly functional tools in keeping officers in optimal mental and emotional health. Those who are trained as peer supporters are taught to assess and refer. This often means to self-refer when the officer coming to them for assistance just needs someone willing to listen to them and even problem solve life’s’ challenges.
Trained peer supporters who can offer confidential support is the most efficient and effective pathway to help for officers who are struggling. This is preventative in nature and lowers the risk of having to address the problem when it manifests itself in the performance of a law enforcement professional.
It should be noted that Critical Incident Stress Teams have historically been tasked with providing debriefings, defusings or demobilization based on the ICISF model of Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) but have been untrained in the provision of proactive and even responsive peer support services.
While it is true that CISM teams do provide a “focused” peer support service when delivering a Critical Stress debriefing, defusing, or demobilization, they are not trained to offer “general” peer support services.
Officers completing VaPSA’s Level-1 Peer Supporter training are prepared to provide CISM, but also support during other personal and professional challenges in the lives of those who serve the Commonwealth. This includes training in how to deal with an officer who is suffering from an addiction, and officer who is grieving the loss of a loved one, an officer who is depressed, or suffering from anxiety as well as many other life challenges not unique to the profession.
The trained peer supporter is in a unique position to reach out to their fellow officers in ways that management cannot due to employment laws and departmental human resource policies. Peer supporters provide a stop gap between officers whose current life stressors and methods of coping are beginning to impact their performance at work and the administrative processes (EAP referral, Fitness for Duty) that must be performed to limit departmental liability and assure public safety.
Peer supporters serve two primary functions. First, they provide a source of assistance to officers who are unwilling to bring their concerns to mental health professionals because they distrust 'shrinks 'or 'would fear' being stigmatized for not being able to handle their problems on their own.
Another reason police and other emergency service professionals cite when utilizing paraprofessionals is that they feel that entering therapy might hurt their
While peer supporters cannot provide the level of services of a trained mental health professional, they can still help considerably. Furthermore, peer supporters provide a legitimate and often more accessible help-seeking-pathway than professional counselors.
The second function of a trained peer supporter is to refer receptive officers to “the right” professional.
Many officers are more likely to take advantage of professional’s services when a referral comes from a trusted peer than if they must make an appointment on their own, look up a “professional stranger” in their insurance handbook or follow the suggestion of a family member. In this regard, peer supporters act as a gateway to professionals.
Peer support professionals offer options to those who come to them for support.
By listening, peer supporters also can assess whether the officers challenge is of a nature or severity that requires professional - and immediate - help. With proper training, peer supporters can identify the signs that indicate an officer may be suicidal, homicidal, severely depressed, abusing alcohol or other drugs, or have other serious
problems that can affect their life, the departments reputation in the community and the citizens themselves.
If the officer has a serious problem, the peer can refer them for professional help. Peer support training programs provide peer supporters with information about available referral resources in addition to the departments own available services.
Many people ask, 'Do I need VAPSA, I thought CISM / CISD was there for help?'
The answer is they are...but so is VaPSA!
Understanding the role of Peer Support and how it relates to CISM and CISD services is an important question for Peer Support Teams and CISM /CISD teams alike.
Critical Incident Stress Management Teams have historically been tasked with providing debriefings, defusings or demobilization based on the ICISF model of Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) but have NOT been trained in the provision of proactive and even responsive peer support services.
While it is true that CISM teams do provide a “focused” peer support service when delivering a Critical Stress debriefing, defusing, or demobilization, they have historically not been trained to offer “general” peer support services; those support services offered outside of a singularly stressful event.
Professionals who complete VaPSA’s Level-1 Peer Supporter training are prepared to provide CISM, but are also trained to offer support during other personal and professional challenges that may not meet the departmental criteria for a critical incident. This includes training in how to deal with an officer who is suffering from an addiction, an officer who is grieving the loss of a loved one, an officer who is depressed, or suffering from anxiety as well as many other life challenges not unique to the profession, but not necessarily prompted by a singular critical incident.
The trained peer supporter is in a unique position to reach out to their coworkers in ways that management cannot due to employment laws and departmental human resource policies. Peer supporters provide a stop gap between the first responder whose current life stressors and methods of coping are beginning to impact their performance at work and the administrative processes (EAP referral, Fitness for Duty) that must be performed to limit departmental liability and assure public safety.
The definition of a critical incident is any event or experience which has the power to overwhelm the defenses of an individual. It is the kind of event, due to it’s danger, horror, threat or loss, which could cause any person to feel a significant increase in stress and stress reactions – immediate or delayed.
Examples of a critical incident are:
Serious injury, death or suicide of a fellow co-worker
Any incident in which sights and sounds are distressing
Any catastrophic event/major disaster
Mass casualty event
Death, injury or abuse of a child
Incidents that attract extremely unusual or possible derogatory news media coverage
Contact with communicative diseases, e.g. COVID/AIDS/Hepatitis B
Death of a close family member
Hostage or barricaded situation
Physical or sexual assault
What is traumatic for one person may not be for another . . . but trauma stress can happen to anyone. Stress from a critical incident cannot be prevented; it is the result of exposure to trauma . . . but it can be managed through a Critical Incident Debriefing.
What is a Critical Incident Debriefing?
A debriefing is a confidential, non-evaluative discussion of the incident with a professional who understands the dynamic thoughts and feelings involved with traumatic events. Participants learn to understand their reactions and to strengthen coping mechanisms.
Goals of the Critical Incident Debriefing
Lessen the emotional impact on personnel exposed to the critical incident.
Accelerate recovery from the event before harmful stress reactions damage work performance, health and work and family relations . . . stop reactions before they start and to confine them before they spread to other employees.
Ending emotional stress reactions early helps stop physical stress reactions that can lead to missed days of work and even possible worker’s compensation claims. Provide an atmosphere of concern and caring within the organization and avoid creating disgruntled employees.
Provide information and training about critical incident stress and stress reactions that personnel can use to help themselves and their fellow workers.
Signs of Critical Incident Stress
Each person reacts to stress in their own way, but some of the most common reactions you may experience are:
Decline in job performance
Loss of appetite/nausea
being overly 'tense'
Re-experiencing the event,
Fear of the workplace