More than two-thirds (71%) of U.S. police agencies serve rural areas (fewer than 10,000 residents) and 75% employ fewer than 25 officers.
Meanwhile, there is a popular misconception that serious crime only occurs in urban areas, but police officers from small and rural agencies face the same daily challenges as their colleagues in urban departments, from community conflicts to traumatic events such as fatal vehicle accidents or homicides, and the same mental or physical health challenges.
Good mental health is as vital as good physical health in order for officers to serve and protect their communities from crime and violence, regardless of where they are in service. The U.S. Department of Justice has published a guide to implementing support services to small and rural police organisations.
Despite the welfare needs of rural police officers, many of these areas are like sanitary deserts, where the population-to-provider ratio for mental health care can be as high as 30,000 to 1. Compared to their urban counterparts, rural residents participate in mental health services at a much lower rate.
Small police departments often have limited staff and resources, inadequate emergency and community services, and very limited access to technology or equipment. Socioeconomic, geographical and workforce factors are significant barriers to access to health care in rural communities.
Regardless of the location or size of a law enforcement agency, the adoption of safety and welfare programmes is vital to ensuring the health of officers who put themselves in harm’s way to protect their communities.
Peer support programmes can be a vital mental health resource for small and rural agencies. However, the same geography and demographic factors that reduce access to other types of mental health support can also be complicated.
Peer support services are a valuable tool for promoting mental well-being in high stress jobs. It can be the way to tap into strengths and relationships between specially trained peers in a non-clinical setting. Faced with a personal crisis, an employee may feel more comfortable initially seeking support from a colleague who understands the context and has experienced the same problems, rather than a mental health professional.
Peer support can therefore be an important first step in an officer welfare strategy. This resource would describe considerations and recommended action steps for rural and small police seeking to establish and maintain peer support services.
These different considerations can be adjusted to suit the unique goals of each agency according to its starting point.
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