Peer Support

Rational for Peer Support

Most modern emergency service agencies have some form of peer support program available to their employees. These programs range from informal networks of experienced police to formally trained and highly structured multi-disciplinary peer organizations.

Training Group

Recently trained peer supporters for Chesterfield County Police Department.  An agency that understands that its most valuable asset is its people.

Professionals in the emergency services field have recognized the need for such programs for decades, but it has not been until the last 20 years that such programs have been formally studied and increasingly perfected in their design and implementation. The change in attitude towards peer support can be attributed to the increasing costs of stress related turnover, disability and performance errors, along with a growing awareness of the success of such programs.

Law enforcement work has been characterized as having prolonged periods of mild to moderate stimulation, punctuated by short bursts of exceptionally high stress (Wood, et al., 1982).  A recent release by the Department of Justice (Finn & Tomz, 1997) noted twenty-eight major sources of stress for law enforcement broken down into five major categories. As spelled out in this report they include:  (a) intra-organizational practices and characteristics, (b) inter-organizational practices and characteristics, (c) criminal justice system practices and characteristics, (d) public practices and characteristics, and (e) police work itself.   This combination of chronic and acute stressors effects even the most resilient of individuals. 

Aside from high incidence of alcoholism and divorce, emergency service professionals often experience stress related health problems. Data from a recent survey of a law enforcement agency in Central Virginia suggests the potential value of professional peer support programs within this region.  Of the 199 respondents, 15.6% were female and 84.4 were male. The majority was non-supervisory (82.4%) and they ranged in tenure from 1 to 26 years of service. What was most impressive about this anonymous data set was the percent of officers who acknowledge the effects of job related stress.  When asked if stress had affected their ability to function at work, 48 percent stated yes. When asked if job-stress had affected their marriage, family and/or significant relationships 58% responded affirmatively. Fifty-four percent acknowledged the negative impact of stress on their leisure time and another 50% recognized a negative impact on their physical health.  These statistics are consistent with those gathered from other departments that do not have formal peer support systems (see Finn & Tomz, 1997).

These responses are most impressive in light of what may be perceived by the officer as limited options for job related support. For instance, only 17% stated they would consider utilizing EAP. Of that only 3.5 percent were sure that they would use the EAP. Only 16% would consider using the mental health department and of that only 3% were sure/ “very likely” to use mental health if they experienced the need.  Twenty three percent acknowledged that they would use a peer supporter (in a system without a formal peer support program). Twenty Six percent stated that they would use a private mental health provider.

Professionals working with Law enforcement personnel have noticed an interesting phenomena regarding police officer’s choice of emotional help-seeking pathways. Dr. Nancy Bohl of the Counseling Team refers to this phenomenon as the 30-30-30 rule. Thirty percent of the officers will chose a chaplain, thirty percent will chose a professional (Psychologist/Psychiatrist) and thirty percent will chose a peer. The other ten- percent will not seek out support, and instead will retreat and isolate themselves from social support systems.

Professionally run peer support programs include each of the above disciplinary components in order to account for the 30-30-30 rule. Only when chaplains, peers and mental health professionals combine and coordinate their efforts, can a comprehensive support program be offered. Comprehensive programs are able to provide acute and short-term services to the majority of those in need while offering a consistent presence that reaches out to that avoidant 10%. This allows departments the most aggressive means of decreasing absenteeism, reducing accidents, increasing productivity and promoting positive morale among the troops. In the end this can result in tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings in human resources-- a police departments most valuable asset.

G&A provides 3&4 day basic training as well as 2-3 day advanced trainings.  In addition we offer quarterly updated trainings for peers (see our calendar of events).  Departments that wish to build and maintain a viable peer support program can contract with G&A to assist and consult in this endeavor. If you are starting a peer support program, we can assist in the development of selection criterion for your peers, policy development, training and updated training.  Our experience in the area of peer support is unmatched in the commonwealth of Virginia. 

Call us at (804) 520-6868 for a free consultation.