By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
When Vincent Van Ness started his law enforcement career 26 years ago, there was almost no mention of the high levels of prolonged stress he would experience. “When I started, they devoted about two hours in the police academy curriculum to stress management,” he said. “After that, it was expected that you were a grown-up and a big boy and if you couldn’t handle it, you should do something else. Thank heavens we’re smarter than that now.”
[Related: How Police Can Reduce and Manage Stress]
Van Ness spent 25 years working for the same sheriff’s office in central Florida. He is currently a lieutenant serving as the operational manager for the department’s aviation section, but has done a little bit of everything throughout his career. “I’ve done patrol work, investigations and special DUI enforcement, and I’ve spent several years as a plain clothes officer involved in surveillance and fugitive apprehension,” he said. The most difficult position he held was with the casualty benefits team, where he was tasked with making plans and arranging services for families of officers killed in the line of duty.
“I’ve personally known about 12 police officers who have been killed in the line of duty and I can think of just as many who have taken their own lives,” he said. “Some suicides were the result of bad decisions, but for the most part they stemmed from workplace stress and an inability to deal with it.”
Earlier in his career, the agency did not have critical incident stress protocol to help officers address trauma. “If you were involved in a shooting or a bad call, administrators might give you a few days off and throw a six-pack at you,” he said. “We ended up with a lot of psychologically damaged ‘walking wounded’ officers from using that approach.”
Today, most agencies require officers to take automatic time off and attend mandatory counseling sessions. During these sessions, officers are often taught about what emotions they may experience, what symptoms are normal and at what point they need to seek further assistance.
But officers still need more. They need in-depth education about stress and what techniques to use to manage stress.
Countermeasures and Techniques for Stress Management
In addition to being a full-time officer, Van Ness is also a faculty member in the criminal justice program at American Military University. One of the undergraduate courses he teaches is CMRJ202: Stress Management in Law Enforcement. This course addresses specific stress factors in law enforcement and teaches students about techniques and countermeasures to reduce stress.
Many agencies have started devoting more in-service training to stress management, but it still only amounts to a few hours a year on the topic. “The fact that AMU offers this course and gives officers eight weeks to learn about stress and how to manage it, is pretty remarkable,” said Van Ness. “Even in a criminal justice academic program, it’s not a topic that many universities devote an entire course to.”
AMU’s course starts by discussing the chemical components of stress and what happens when the brain is under stress. Students learn specific causes of stress in police work, including schedule changes related to shift work, administrative problems, involvement in a use-of-force incident, response to a traumatic event, or even personal finances and family problems.
After identifying what can cause stress, students learn about some of the countermeasures to alleviate or manage it. For example, learning proper breathing techniques can help combat stress in the short term. Students also learn about the importance of talking to someone about their stress, and leading a healthy lifestyle by eating properly and exercising regularly.
Van Ness said that one of the simplest things officers can do is acknowledge that they have a stressful job. “You’re not going to make it 25 years without acknowledging your stress. Otherwise, it’ll make you crazy. Acknowledge your stress and then learn how to deal with it in a healthy way,” he said.
[Related: Police Officers Face Cumulative PTSD]
During the course, Van Ness puts his years of experience to work and shares with students some of the stress management strategies that have worked for him. Eating well and getting exercise has helped him through a lot of tough times, he said. He also learned the importance of talking to his significant other about the reality of being a law enforcement family. “Being an officer is really stressful on families and you both have to be on the same page and know what you’re getting into,” he said.
Money is also a huge source of stress for officers. “I tell students they have to live within their means and not to let themselves get saddled with debt. The fact is, most officers don’t make a lot of money. It’s taken me 25 years to be a middle-class person. I paid for things in cash and drove junky cars for a long time. You have to be diligent about keeping your financial house in order,” he said.
He also recommends that officers recognize when they need a vacation. “So many officers carry 400 or 500 hours of vacation time on the books. It’s no wonder they’re stressed out. Learn to give yourself a break,” he recommended.
While being a police officer is an extremely stressful career, it is also very rewarding. Officers must learn about the stressors they can expect to experience, acknowledge stress when it happens and know how to deal with it in a healthy way.