AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas has launched a program to provide law enforcement officers with remote mental and emotional support.

Officers seeking help can remain anonymous. Departments across the state said that factor could be a life-saving difference.

“The anonymity is very important, especially in Texas,” said John Sierega, director of field services for the Texas Municipal Police Association. “Because the stigma is something that prevents a lot of officers from reaching out for help. Texas is an at-will employment state, so in the at-will employment departments you can be fired for a good reason, bad reason or no reason at all. And there are a lot of chiefs and sheriffs who view someone in a mental health crisis as being weak.”

The Texas Law Enforcement Peer Network’s app-accessible support services connect officers with phone, email or in-person access to 300 specially trained peers.

“The peer network came as a result of the epidemic of police suicide in the state of Texas,” said Dustin Schellenger, the network’s director. “It’s a matter of finding a healthy way to vent some of the pressures of the stressors they deal with on a daily basis.”

Schellenger added for various reasons, officers typically more easily open up about these stressors to their peers.

“Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a fellow officer that’s doing the same thing you’re doing day in and day out than it is a counselor,” he said.

Leaders at several Central Texas agencies understand that notion as well.

“Officers often times will go through their entire career and not get any mental health help,” said West Lake Hills Police Chief Scott Gerdes.

According to Schellenger, 98% of first responders that died by suicide between 2017 and 2021 were police officers. He also said as of April, 70% of Texas law enforcement agencies did not have dedicated mental health resources for officers.

While the peer network app tool is new, several Central Texas agencies told KXAN they do have their own resources.

“We implemented a program about three years ago where officers are required every year to go to a mental wellness check with our psychologist,” said Gerdes. “I have to go, all my officers. Everyone has to go from the department, so that takes away from some of that stigma.”

Round Rock Police Commander Melissa Grubbs said the department has had its own internal peer support network for about 10 years.

“Each of those contacts are anonymous,” she said. “We have not only sworn, but non-sworn individuals as well.”

In Georgetown, Chief Cory Tchida said the department offers peer support and has contracted with a local mental health provider. Officers don’t have to pay for the visits and the meetings are confidential.

“If we save even one, then all the work we’re doing to get this launched across the state will be worth it,” said Schellenger.