By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice
June is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Month. During this event, it is vital to recognize what PTSD is, how to recognize it in ourselves and how to mitigate it.
For police officers, it is especially important to recognize PTSD and treat it. Police officers are regularly exposed to traumatic events that can result in PTSD, and it can affect their on-the-job performance if officers are not aware of PTSD’s warning signs. For instance, PTSD that is not properly managed can lead to serious mental health problems, suicide, substance abuse or aggression.
What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
PTSD is a mental health problem that occurs when someone has difficulty recovering from experiencing a traumatic event. In policing, common traumatic events include:
- Seeing abused children
- Receiving injuries on the job
- Attending car accidents that involve fatalities
- Seeing dead bodies from other events, such as a household murder-suicide or a school shooting
- Becoming involved in on-the-job situations requiring the use of deadly force
- Being violently attacked
How Many Police Officers Are Affected by PTSD?
According to the Department of Justice, it is estimated that around 15% of officers in the United States experience PTSD symptoms. However, the true scope of the problem is not known.
Many officers don’t seek mental health help due to the stigma involved with seeking help; they fear being perceived by other police officers as weak or that treatment could impact on their career. However, the risk of ignoring PTSD symptoms is far more dangerous to an officer’s career versus seeking help.
[eMagazine: Understanding and Managing Law Officer Stress]
I suspect that the true percentage of officers that experience PTSD symptoms is much higher than reported. In a study by the National Police Association, around 50,000 officers are injured yearly on the job. In a survey of around 200 officers, the National Police Association also found that 20% of officers had to seek medical care due to experiencing an assault or from interacting with a resisting suspect.
In addition, the National Police Association determined that 63% of officers participating in the survey were physically assaulted on the job and received injuries that caused pain but did not require medical treatment. Similarly, 70-80% of officers are in use-of-force situations where they decide whether to use deadly force at least once every two years but can resolve the situation without deadly force. However, these situations can still result in PTSD for officers because officers are placed in an immensely stressful situation whenever their lives are threatened.
What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?
A diagnosis of PTSD involves consultation with a mental health professional and is based on the symptoms the patient is experiencing. According to the Stay Safe Foundation, some common symptoms of PTSD include:
- Re-experiencing traumatic symptoms through distressing memories that are involuntary, continue to occur, and may involve flashbacks, nightmares, and thoughts that are disruptive and intrusive
- Avoiding certain places or activities that trigger memories of the traumatic event
- Experiencing depression, guilt or fear
- Having trouble recalling the traumatic event and experiencing “derealization,” a mental state where someone feels detached from his or her surroundings
- Becoming hyper-vigilant or easily startled
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Becoming unable to control anger
Police Officers Are at Much Greater Risk for PTSD
The Stay Safe Foundation notes that the average person experiences four traumatic events during a lifetime. By contrast, first responders experience an average of over 200 traumatic events throughout their service, which places police officers at an especially high risk of PTSD.
If an officer displays the symptoms of PTSD, these symptoms should never be ignored. Ignoring PTSD indicators can result in officers to experience both mental and physical health problems or even to commit suicide.
Resources for Police Officers with PTSD
Fortunately, there are a lot of resources available to police officers suffering from PTSD. Most police agencies have Employee Assistance Programs that offer counseling services.
In addition, there are resources such as COPLINE, a counseling service that provides a 24/7 confidential helpline for officers and their family members. COPLINE is staffed by trained, retired police officers who connect with callers about the stressors they encounter on and off the job.
Police officers should speak with their healthcare providers about PTSD symptoms they experience after a job-related traumatic event. There are several therapies to help officers who experience PTSD; these therapies can lead to healthy stress-coping strategies and better stress management.
For instance, other therapies that are available to police officers include cognitive behavioral therapy or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), cognitive behavioral therapy helps police officers with PTSD by examining the relationship between the officer’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Creating changes in thinking, for instance, can strengthen the officer’s feelings and behaviors.
[Read our full-length eMagazine: Rebuilding Officer Resiliency: A Treatment Guide]
The APA also says that cognitive behavioral therapy helps people reconceptualize their understanding of the traumatic event, their understanding of themselves and their ability to cope with a traumatic event. Ultimately, this therapy helps police officers and other patients think differently about their experiences associated with a traumatic event.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing involves a type of psychotherapy where someone is briefly exposed to emotionally disturbing content while at the same time focusing on external stimuli. This therapy results in the release of stress, a reforming of negative thoughts and a reduction in the psychological impacts of adverse experiences.
PTSD Stress Awareness Month Is an Important Time to Help Police Officers with PTSD
PTSD Stress Awareness Month is a good time to spotlight PTSD and the harm it causes. Since police officers are especially susceptible to experiencing traumatic events and PTSD, it is important for them to remain resilient and address when they are adversely impacted by traumatic experiences, both on and off the job.