An Alabama man is trying to address the mental health issues and stresses faced by law enforcement in the state.

Randy Stroup, a former police officer who retired last year after serving as police chief in Jackson's Gap, has begun offering space for law enforcement and their families to decompress, regroup, and – if desired – counseling through a nearly year-old non-profit, Cater2Cops.

With the increased awareness of mental health struggles that plague law enforcement officers, the need for avenues of officer counseling and support have become a priority for police departments and the officers they employ.

According to Stroup, the stressful lifestyle of law enforcement, combined with low pay and long hours, gives them little time to deal with the pressures that accompany the job.

In one study from the National Library of Medicine, 12% of law enforcement agents had a lifetime mental health diagnosis, and 26% reported current symptoms of mental illness.

“We in law enforcement are triple the national average in PTSD, suicide, anxiety: all the fun stuff,” Stroup said. "On top of that, we all know how the pay goes. So, my passion for giving has really shifted over the past several years, going from giving to the public to giving back to us; let us breathe a little. The average life expectancy of a police officer when he retires is seven years.”

Stroup says that the heightened awareness of the need for support and counseling by leadership nationwide has removed some of the stigma, a result which he intends to further extend.

“My passion is to help break the stigma about peer support and counseling,” Stroup said. “You know, for many years, we were told, ‘suck it up and deal with it, Alphas don’t need help,’ they help everybody else. But, from time to time, they need to know it’s ok to talk a little bit. It's ok not to be ok.

“…I think we’re going to see an uptick in officer wellness, but we really are just in the early stages of it. … You’re starting to see a shift in the mindset of the command staff where officer wellness plays a huge role.”

According to the National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI), the majority of police officers face alcohol abuse, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to NAMI, one in four law enforcement officers have contemplated suicide.

In 2022, there have already been 85 cases of suicide by a current or former member of law enforcement, according to Blue H.E.L.P., an organization that tracks first-responder suicide.

According to NAMI, smaller police departments also have an average suicide rate that is four times the national average.

Cater2Cops has a simple goal: to give officers time, space, and freedom to relax, unwind, and decompress, without having to fret about the costs usually associated with vacations and rest time.

The non-profit seeks to give a faith-based approach to dealing with the issues plaguing law enforcement families through peer support and counseling.

“There’s two things you’ve got to have: you’ve got to have God, and you’ve got to have peer support; there’s no ifs, ands, or buts,” Stroup said.

With the help of his family and others, Stroup hosts four-day getaways for law enforcement and their families at various locations depending on the season, with the housing and food all covered by Cater2Cops. He intends to host families for one week out of the month.

Funds, supplies, and housing are all donated to Cater2cops and made available to the families free of charge.

The idea has been five years in the making for Stroup, who spent 19 years in the Alexander City Police Department. After taking a position as the Chief of Police at Jackson's Gap, the doors swung wide-open for Stroup and his family to fulfill their mission.

“As we got closer to hosting our first family, we realized that I couldn’t take a week off of work each month,” Stroup said. “I don’t know of any Chief or any position that can take that time off, so we knew we had to give something up. We had 21-and-a-half years on the retirement books. So, less than three-and-a-half years from full retirement, we walked away. We gave up the chief position, we resigned from law enforcement, and now this is what we do.”

Additional to the time and space needed for activities and fun for the families to unwind, Cater2Cops also makes counselors available for the families to address the multitude of issues facing both the law enforcement officers and their families.

“We’re just human, and most of us police officers are a different breed,” Stroup said. “So not only do we have our own issues to deal with, but we paste a smile on our face and go out there and deal with everybody else’s. It’s kind of like a trash can, you can only put so much in, and it just piles up and piles up. Well, the object of counseling and peer support is to get rid of some of that trash. You can’t really empty the can, but you can keep it from overflowing.”

Stroup believes focusing on counseling and peer support for officers can have a very positive effect on officers, which in turn will improve their interactions with the public.

“Over the years, I’ve watched a ton of videos,” Stroup said. “Now I’m a big believer in ‘you play a dumb game, you win a dumb prize,’ but I’ve seen some videos where I’m saying, ‘dang, what kind of day was the officer having? What kind of week? How’s their home life?’ Because it's hard to flip that switch every day, separating the two; sometimes things bleed over.”

Cater2cops has been operating for just a year and has already hosted several families through private donations from friends and family. Now that the company has received non-profit approval from the IRS, it is trying to draw the attention of several national and local companies.

“Coca-Cola started donating us some drinks, which is huge,” Stroup said. “Tractor Supply, they donated some charcoal and stuff that we need for all the grilling that we do. So we’re just slowly trying to get out there and offset those costs as much as we can.”

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