By Jinnie Chua, Assistant Editor of In Public Safety
Mental health struggles and stress remain among the most prevalent yet unacknowledged issues in policing. Some studies suggest that 19 percent of police officers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and at least 108 officers took their own lives last year.
“Inherent dangers and traumatic experiences from the job lead to psychological, physiological and mental problems,” said Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, a 20-year law enforcement veteran and criminal justice professor at American Military University (AMU).
“I’ve seen police suicides. I’ve seen stress ruin marriages and ruin officers’ lives,” he said. Still, there are many who manage to avoid such tragic outcomes, Sadulski noted. “I’ve also seen officers who are highly effective at managing stress and I’ve always wondered what the difference was.”
In January, Sadulski concluded a two-year multiple case study on the coping strategies used by police officers who successfully managed stress over their careers. He presented the findings at the Southern Criminal Justice Association (SCJA) Conference in New Orleans last month, and spoke with In Public Safety about what he learned.
How Officers Can Combat Stress
After formulating interview questions with the input of four experts (all professors at AMU’s School of Security and Global Studies), Sadulski selected eight participants who have demonstrated resilience throughout their police careers. From the participant interviews, he identified five common factors that improve officer resilience:
- Peer support through communication – Peer support allows officers to actively process their stress by talking to others who have had similar experiences. In addition to providing a private and safe environment to talk after an incident, designated peer support providers should maintain communication in the following weeks or months to ensure officers are recovering properly. “Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) is one important form of peer support and agencies with CISM programs are far more equipped to help officers handle stress,” said Sadulski.
- Experience – “I thought experience would be a stressor, but all participants mentioned that it actually helped build resilience,” said Sadulski. “It helped them put traumatic experiences in perspective.” Over time, experienced officers learn to develop conditioned responses to stress and are even able to view emergency calls as routine in nature. While it’s important to avoid becoming complacent, the study found that experience allowed officers to go into a traumatic situation and separate themselves from the victims and the incident itself.
- Family Support – “Officers who are able to communicate with their spouses regarding what occurs out in the field reduces the long-term impact of stress,” said Sadulski. Agencies can facilitate this type of support by providing shifts or schedules more conducive to family life. They can also promote family activities, such as cookouts or outings, so officers and their families can meet counterparts who go through similar experiences and challenges.
- Life and identity outside of policing – Maintaining a holistic identity separate from the badge allows officers to unwind when they’re not on the job. This could involve being active in the community, participating in faith-based programs, or engaging in hobbies. Spending time with friends who aren’t police officers is also important for gaining different, diverse perspectives of the world. “Officers should also set goals unrelated to policing, such as goals following police retirement,” said Sadulski. “This motivation can act like a light at the end of the tunnel.”
- Police Training – “Stress management training should be established through the police academy and it should be a part of annual block training that is required for offices to maintain their certifications,” said Sadulski. For example, simulation training can prepare officers for traumatic incidents, building confidence by requiring officers to make split second decisions like those they face in the field.
[Related: Teaching Officers about Stress Management]
The Takeaway for Agencies
As awareness about the impact of stress on policing continues to spread, Sadulski recommends a deliberate shift to help officers build resilience and implement a healthier police culture. Agencies must strive to continually improve the resources they provide their officers to help them navigate stress and traumatic incidents.
“A lot of the themes identified in the study are areas that agencies can get involved with to support their officers,” said Sadulski. “Agencies have a responsibility to establish a CISM program and it’s important that they promote opportunities for family support through sponsored outings and events. They should also place an emphasis on providing additional triggering stress responses to help stress management training.”
While all agencies should aim to have these general resources and structures in place, it’s important that they cater to the specific needs of their personnel and encourage them to find what works for them. For example, one participant of the study described how her partner was shot while responding to a bank robbery. To help manage the resulting trauma, she reported that the five officers who were involved on that call get together every year on the day of the shooting to touch base and reflect on what they’ve been through.
[Related: Police Officers Face Cumulative PTSD]
“She explained how that was one of the most traumatic experiences in her career and that participating in that informal peer support has been very helpful,” said Sadulski.
Based on his findings, Sadulski is authoring a book about how police officers can effectively manage stress throughout their careers. “I hope agencies and officers can use the study in a tangible way to integrate strategies to promote resilience,” he said.