Why Is Peer Support Important?

"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.

Why Peer Support?

                                                                ​    President-Board of Directors

                                                                                     President-Board of Directors

Virginia Peer Support Association