In the daily lives of police officers, exposure to crisis and unyielding traumatic events are standard. The result is insurmountable emotional baggage that deeply affects a police officer’s psyche. Excessive stress overwhelms the body’s central nervous system and circuitry in the brain. Therefore, over time, untreated stress hits a threshold causing lasting adverse consequences that can lead to Acute Distress Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and suicide which are increasing at an alarming rate. Officers act as protectors and are symbols of strength for society. If unattended, these pressures build and undermine an officer’s ability to manage their responsibilities effectively. Positive coping mechanisms or tough-mindedness reduces physical, mental and emotional encumbrances. Many officers are reluctant to pursue help because of fear of stigma, legal considerations, and even the loss of their careers if they seek help. Too many officers are silently suffering behind their badge- something must be done! The low costs of treatment far outweigh the long-term burdens to individuals, precincts, and society as a whole.
Untreated PTSD within police enforcement has resulted in significant increases in suicide. According to Suicide Awareness & Support Organization statistics, 2% of the 18,000 police agencies have suicide prevention programs. The current “brotherhood” of officers is more of a culture of silence, which can undermine necessary support and communication.
Dr. Laurence Miller, an expert in police psychology stated,” crises rarely occur in isolation, but are most commonly seen in officers with prior histories of depression, or in those who have recently faced an overwhelming crush of debilitating stressors, leading to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.” A typical pattern consists of a slow, smoldering build-up of tension and demoralization, which reaches a “breaking point,” and then rapidly nosedives into a suicidal crisis. Appropriate treatment, about 70% of depressed, potentially suicidal persons improve considerably within a few weeks to months.
Most suicide victims are young patrol officers with no record of misconduct, followed by officers with a history of unresolved early life trauma. Officers under stress are caught in the dilemma of risking confiscation of their guns or other career setbacks if they report distress or request help. One such officer was, my uncle- James Laverack, a Field Training Officer, Honor Guard, Hostage Negotiator, Juvenile Division Officer and Military Veteran died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The factors leading to his suicide are similar to those routinely mentioned in media sources.
The future of stress management for law enforcement should incorporate prevention of chronic stress, depression, management of on-going trauma. Only by education, awareness, training, and support can Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome be properly treated. Therapists offer concrete tools that help officers gain perspective during a crisis, determine the personal impact, avoid dysfunctional patterned behavioral responses, and derive healthier options. Combating the root problems associated with PTSD that lead to suicide should be the primary goal. Police officers can begin to balance their overwhelming career life with a quality personal life. The risks, signs, and symptoms are critical to watch for in an early law enforcement career.
Proactive measures can produce successful lifelong skills that build “tough mindedness” or “resilience.” Removing the stigma and fear associated with seeking help will open the door for new and seasoned law enforcement personnel to take the first step.