Let's prioritise mental health of officers in disciplined services

Police recruits march during a past pass out parade at the Kenya Police Training College, Kiganjo, Nyeri. [Mose Sammy, Standard]

In the realm of the disciplined services, mental resilience plays a critical role in the overall well-being of individuals who face challenges of duty on the front lines.

From military personnel to police officers, these dedicated individuals encounter high-stress situations, trauma, and demanding environments that can significantly impact their mental health negatively.

Mental resilience can be defined as the capacity to adapt and bounce back from adversity, trauma, or any form of stress. It is the psychological strength that enables individuals to withstand and recover from the many challenges that they encounter. In the context of disciplined services; mental resilience becomes paramount due to the unique demands of their jobs.

The front lines are rife with trauma-inducing events, ranging from combat situations to quick response to emergencies. These experiences can lead to a range of mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder and unpleasant anxiety.

Long deployments and frequent relocations can result into isolation, including lack of social support networks, contributing to feelings of loneliness and detachment. Despite growing awareness, stigma surrounding mental health persists. The perception that seeking help is a sign of weakness can prevent individuals from reaching out for support.

High-pressure environments that demand effective performances in life-and-death situations, coupled with the responsibility of upholding law and order, add an extra layer of stress to the daily lives of these individuals.

In Kenya, the mental resilience of disciplined services is put to test against the backdrop of diverse challenges. Members of Kenya's military and police services often operate in high-risk areas, engaging in peacekeeping missions, counter-terrorist operations and disaster response. These demanding duties expose the concerned personnel to trauma, violence and unpredictable extreme situations.

While Kenya has made remarkable strides in recognising the importance of mental health within the disciplined services, there still are gaps that should be addressed. The stigma associated with seeking mental health support remains a pervasive issue, deterring individuals from seeking help when needed.

However, efforts have been made to integrate mental health support into training programmes in addition to provision of individual and group counselling services. Drawing comparisons from around the world provides a broader understanding of how different countries address mental resilience within their disciplined services.

The US military has implemented comprehensive mental health programmes that emphasise early intervention aimed at reducing stigma. Services offered include access to mental health professionals and peer support groups, including material and moral support for the families. The British military focuses on promoting mental and physical fitness of its disciplined personnel. They offer confidential helplines, mental health awareness training, and support for veterans transitioning to civilian life. Canada's disciplined forces benefit from mental health first aid training, which equips personnel with the basic skills to identify and provide initial support to colleagues in need. Peer support networks also play a vital role in offering a safe space to discuss mental health concerns.

The Australian Defence Forces emphasise prevention by promoting mental health awareness and de-stigmatisation. They provide resources for resilience training, crisis support, and mental health education. Lessons and recommendations for Kenya include mandatory mental health awareness training for all members of the disciplined services. This training should cover signs and symtoms of common mental health disorders, ways to provide initial support, and how to seek professional help.

Kenya should include mental health education as part of the initial training curriculum, emphasising the importance of emotional well-being alongside physical preparedness. There is need to launch stigma-reduction campaigns to create an environment where seeking help for mental health issues is seen as a sign of strength rather than weakness. Sharing stories of individuals who have sought help and thrived can inspire others to take the same step.

Other measures include establishment of dedicated mental health units within disciplined services that are staffed with psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors and social workers. Ensure that mental health services are confidential, free of judgment, and easily accessible to all members. Create peer support programmes where members can connect with colleagues who have undergone training to provide emotional support and a safe space for discussion. Peer supporters can help identify individuals who might be struggling and encourage them to seek professional help.

Mental resilience is the fulcrum of the wellbeing for individuals in the disciplined services worldwide. The challenges these individuals face demand a holistic and strategic supportive approach. As we honour our servicemen and women in the disciplined services, it is imperative that we prioritise their mental wellbeing.