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Is PTSD Worthy of Pension Benefits?

By Dr. Chuck RussoProgram Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University

For many years, research and professional literature has identified law enforcement personnel as susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While programs and policies have been put in place to help personnel recover from normal responses to abnormal events, not all will be able to bounce back and return to work. When this occurs, that person typically faces many obstacles to obtaining pension benefits.

[Free Download: Understanding and Managing Law Officer Stress]

On February 15, I will be joined by other criminal justice faculty members from American Military University and additional panel members to discuss the issue of PTSD and pensions during the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) annual meeting in New Orleans.

Difficulties Obtaining a PTSD-Based Pension

Obstacles come in the form of many different stakeholders, each of which has a very different perspective when it comes to awarding a disability pension to law enforcement personnel based solely on a PTSD claim. These all come together to make it very difficult for a law enforcement officer to obtain a pension based on psychological injury alone.

[Related: Five Ways to Promote Officer Resilience]

While those in clinical/forensic psychology rely on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) for a PTSD diagnosis, there is still some interpretation required that can lead to conflicting diagnoses by trained professionals. This interpretation has led to what is known as “criterion creep” in that the PTSD diagnosis has now been used to classify a wide variety events and accompanying responses. The expansion of the PTSD label has led to questioning by some of what the diagnosis truly means.

[Related: Taking the First Steps to Healing from PTSI]

Law enforcement administrators often have a different point of view. In the absence of comprehensive tests for proving or disproving PTSD claims, they frequently express concerns with fraud and abuse. They already guard against fraud and abuse for medical pensions based on physical injury—would pensions based on psychological injury make matters worse? Anxious that the award of just one pension based on PTSD will open the floodgates to many others attempting to obtain PTSD pensions, law enforcement administrators seem hesitant to unlock this door.

Giving PTSD Due Attention

Meanwhile, academia has identified law enforcement officers and other first responders as susceptible to PTSD; unfortunately, researchers have not necessarily utilized the same definition for PTSD when making this determination. This has led to questions about research findings. It has also created difficulty when trying to paint a comprehensive picture of the PTSD issue in the public safety professions.

[Related: Police Officers Face Cumulative PTSD]

Law enforcement personnel themselves present yet another obstacle. Many are reluctant to publicly express their experience with PTSD for fear of administrative repercussions, social stigma, and peer pressure. This may lead people to believe there is not a PTSD problem in law enforcement. Many officers would rather suffer in silence than speak up and seek assistance. For many years, those who sought psychological assistance were often viewed as weak or a liability and removed from the front lines. While progress has been made in this area, there is still a long way to go to eliminate negative repercussions related to seeking help.

[Related: Suicide Prevention Comes Out of the Public Safety Shadows]

PTSD in the law enforcement profession is now acknowledged by many, but issues still arise for officers unable to return to work. Many stakeholders are involved in determining if an officer is eligible for a pension based solely on a psychological injury. Each brings their own unique perspective on the topic, creating specific obstacles. I look forward to exploring this topic further during the ACJS meeting.

pensionAbout the Author: Dr. Chuck Russo is the Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University (AMU). He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in Central Florida and was involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations before retiring from law enforcement in 2013. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government and industry throughout the United States and the Middle East. His recent research and presentations focus on emerging technology and law enforcement applications, in addition to post-traumatic stress and online learning.

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