Ellen Kirschman, PhD, is an atypical police psychologist. She doesn't work for a specific department or practice; she works for herself. And, she doesn't do many officer screenings.
Her practice focuses on providing police officer crisis interventions, police department management consultations, seminars for law enforcement and public outreach, as well as conducting some research. "I'm sort of like a cop myself [in that] I like to have a lot of variety in my work life," says Kirschman.
She spends one day a week at the Palo Alto, Calif., Police Department as the health resources coordinator, talking to officers and civilian employees after stressful incidents, helping them find mental health services for themselves and their families, consulting with managers and supervisors, and assisting recruits and field training officers.
"My office is right there on the flight path between the briefing room and the locker room, as opposed to being tucked away," she says. "It ensures that I'm part of the general mix of the whole organization."
Kirschman is also part of a team of psychologists helping another local public safety department start a peer support team to assist police officers and firefighters after stressful incidents. She also provides critical incident training and legal and management consultation to several other police and fire departments.
But Kirschman's work isn't limited to her scheduled office hours: Since police work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, psychologists must be available "24- 7" too, she explains.
In addition to consulting with police departments, Kirschman is the author of a widely distributed book for police families, "I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know," (see resources, page 60) and is co-founder and co-project director of the Web site policefamilies.com. She and fellow police psychologist Lorraine Greene, PhD, developed the site to give families of police officers mental health information and access to online family support services.
Funded by the National Institute of Justice, the Metropolitan Police Department of Nashville, Tenn., and Davidson County, Tenn., the site includes message boards and curriculum outlines with downloadable overheads and handouts for educational workshops for spouses, parents and children. Families can also find tips on money management, information on bouncing back from a stressful event and how to be a better communicator, columns written by police psychologists, and a special section for kids.
For several years, she has helped train Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents to provide support to peers and their families after a trauma. Sometimes, she explains, law enforcement personnel react better to support from a colleague than a mental health worker from the outside. In the same vein, she's helped train family members of DEA agents killed in the line of duty to reach out to newly bereaved families.
Kirschman also travels across the country to speak to police officers, police academy students and law enforcement families about coping with job and family stress, as well as to mental health professionals working with police or who are interested in the field.
"My view is that I am working with healthy people who have difficult jobs and a lot of job stress--as opposed to working with a sick population," she says, adding that "you have to keep in mind that these people have been thoroughly screened before they get their jobs; we psychologists never get screened."