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Mental Health is a public safety issue: Addressing the human elements of policing to prevent officer suicide

Frequent exposure to life-threatening circumstances creates acute mental health challenges for many police officers. They are more likely to suffer depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and more officers die by suicide than in the line of duty. The Bluffton Police Department responded to this threat to public safety by creating a multifaceted program promoting officer wellness and normalizing mental health assistance — a frequently stigmatized concept in police culture. 
Many of the department’s initiatives derive from the focus areas of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which published a report in 2015 on reducing crime while building public trust. The initiatives include suicide awareness training for officers, and resilience training for officers and their spouses. The department offers officers a sabbatical benefit, providing eligible participants with a month off with pay, and a bonus. The program provides officers and their families free counseling through an employee assistance program, and connects officers with Copline, a 24/7 hotline for them to seek support from peers. The department also established a new position responsible for officer recruitment and wellness. 
In one of the most visible efforts, the department is building a Reflection Plaza at its headquarters, which is dedicated it to its Officer Jonathon Garcia, who died by suicide. The facility is intended as a safe space to communicate and take a break from policing demands. It received $35,000 in private donations and $40,000 from the town’s capital improvements budget.  
Multiple recruits have said they joined the Bluffton Police Department because of its approach to officer wellness. In 2022, all seven officers eligible to take a sabbatical are doing so.  
Contact Debbie Szpanka at or 843.540.2274.