By Matthew Loux, faculty member at American Military University
Having been in law enforcement for many years, I have seen fellow officers struggle with stress, financial problems, family life-changing events, time management issues, PTSD, and several other issues that affect their mental health.
Whether you are a coworker or family member, we all must recognize the warning signs or symptoms of depression and distress and then help those who are impacted. In recognition of May as Mental Health Month, here are some common signs and symptoms of someone who may have a mental health condition:
- Changes in eating habits such as overeating or a loss of appetite
- Overly worried, even about smaller things
- Inability to concentrate, memory recall issues, or the inability to think clearly
- Sadness, hopelessness, or feelings of worthlessness
- Light, sound, sight, or touch sensitivities
- Restlessness or irritability
- Loss of interest in activities
- Changes in energy levels
This is not an all-encompassing list, but rather some signs to look for and further explore in correlation to stressors that person may be experiencing such as:
- Exposure to horrific events from calls for service or investigations
- Shift work, which can cause sleep pattern disruptions
- Isolation because of the profession
- Financial strain because of low pay, lack of raises, and concerns about retirement
- Internal affairs investigations
- Large investigative caseloads
- Media attention
These indicators and stressors can affect the officer as well as the family. Agencies need to have a plan in place to help employees who may be suffering before it leads to a range of problems that eventually can lead to suicide.
The Rise of Police Suicide
According to a study of police suicides by The Badge of Life, Ron Clark and Andy O’Hara identified the following 2012 statistics:
- 126 police suicides
- Average age was 42
- Average years on the job was 16
- 91% of victims were males
- 63% of victims were single
- 11% of victims were military veterans
What Should You Do?
As a fellow officer or even a citizen, be involved and remain aware of the behavior and actions of other law enforcement officers. If you recognize symptoms or indicators, talk with the officer and see if you can help. The worst thing you can do is ignore the signs.
Most officers are proud and confident individuals who think they can handle everything on their own. However, speaking with an unbiased professional can really help them deal with their issues. If needed, refer an officer to a counselor or other mental health professional. Or they may want to speak with the police chaplain or their own spiritual leader. If they’re having financial issues, suggest speaking to a local financial counseling service.
Most departments have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that offers services for employees, dependents, and household members. Some officers may resist because they fear the counseling or consultations will not be confidential; I recommend contacting your EAP coordinator to learn specifics about confidentiality.
If the issues worsen, consider reporting what you have seen to a supervisor who may also provide more options and intervene to support the officer.
What Should the Department Do?
Each department should bring awareness of mental illness or stressors into every aspect of the job, starting with the academy. Departments need to do more than just post an EAP sign on the wall.
A portion of the academy should outline the indicators and stressors of the job so officers are aware of mental health issues early in their career. Such training should be delivered by academy staff, human resources, EAP representatives, and upper management.
Continuing education requirements are also an opportunity to discuss mental health issues. Such courses should discuss indicators, stressors, as well as resources available to officers.
When any officer is involved in a critical incident, the department should inform officers of resources available to them and their family members. Involving the family is an important step in addressing mental health. Make sure family members have contact information for EAP services and inform them that they can receive assistance as well.
Departments should also provide financial counseling as a benefit to officers. They should hold retirement seminars to fully explain what officers can expect, what forms to fill out, and who to contact regarding retirement. Agency leadership needs to spearhead such programs in an effort to take care of employees and ensure they have the information and resources they need to stay healthy.
Mental Health Month and National Police Week
In recognition of Mental Health Month and in honor of National Police Week, please take a moment to share your story so others know that they are not alone. This week is a time to remember those officers who died in the line of duty, as well as those who took their own lives as a result of their careers as law enforcement officers.
When you attend a memorial service, remember that you can help others and even save a life by recognizing the signs of mental health conditions, reaching out to those officers, and making sure they get the help they need.
About the Author: Matt Loux has been in law enforcement for more than 20 years and has a background in fraud, criminal investigation, as well as hospital, school, and network security. Matt has researched and studied law enforcement and security best practices for the past 10 years.