Every law enforcement officer expects to experience some stressful moments at work. Many, however, are not prepared for exactly how stressful their daily duties will be, and police culture still has trouble fully comprehending and acknowledging the pain that stress can cause.
“An officer often thinks that ‘If I tell a mental health practitioner, administration is going to take me off the street and take away my gun and put me on the desk, and that is the last thing I want to have happen,’” says Deirdre DeLong, Program Director for the Critical Incident Response Service at Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio.
Emotional wellness and safety can no longer be ignored, however. They are being pushed to the forefront of education and outreach efforts as more officers struggle with critical incidents, unstable communities, national exposure and stretched-out resources. Here are some of the most common day-to-day psychological stressors that officers are exposed to, along with expert advice on how to handle them in practical ways before they impact your personal or professional life.
Cause: Misunderstandings between patrol and upper management. Each group may not be fully aware of where the other is coming from and what the daily grind of their job is really like.
Symptoms: It creates a lack of respect and trust between officers and leadership that manifests as an “us versus them” mentality, says DeLong. Hallmarks include tense communication, either verbal or nonverbal, or blatantly ignoring that the other exists. Anger boiling just beneath the surface can explode at seemingly unexpected moments.
Coping strategy: “Just talking to each other can ease tension,” says DeLong. One of you will have to be the bigger person, though, and invite the other to sit down, either during a slow shift or while off duty. The conversation is not a time to point fingers, but rather to ask questions and actually listen to answers. “Discuss your goals, both as individuals and as a team,” suggests DeLong. If communicating is too uncomfortable, take a moment to put yourself in each other’s shoes. Administrators need to do better at rewarding patrol officers for a job well done. Patrol officers must understand there may be some inside police politics that affect how administrators are allowed to do their jobs.
Cause: Inability to communicate with spouse, children or other family members.
Symptoms: Sometimes the very thing that is supposed to offer police officers respite from their careers becomes the biggest stressor in their lives. That’s because, over time, officers can become detached from their families, explains Stephanie Samuels, a psychotherapist from New Jersey who works exclusively with law enforcement and first responders. Officers spend so much time trying not to talk about their feelings that they end up going numb and begin acting out in other harmful ways. “Sometimes it’s that that they do not want to expose their loved ones with what they’ve been through, or they don’t want to have to relive the horror that they just experienced,” she says. “What ends up happening, though, is that they seek out another person to tell that stuff to and that devolves into an affair, or they turn to drugs, alcohol or some other adrenaline-seeking rush.”
Coping strategy: Getting in touch with a therapist who understands law enforcement culture is key. “These types of therapists get the thoughts, impulses, desires to act out and adrenaline-seeking behavior better than anyone,” says Samuels. “Normally, however, officers don’t contact a therapist until they’ve already acted out.” She also recommends maintaining friendships outside of law enforcement: “Officers start to lose their civilian way of thinking, so any small problem an officer is having may be exacerbated by only having law enforcement friends. Whereas a law enforcement friend may tell another officer to ‘have a drink’ at the end of a hard day, a civilian friend might ask more questions in a nonthreatening, caring way that allows the officer to just vent.”
Cause: Continually worrying about your safety, not knowing what situations you’ll encounter.
Symptoms: For patrol officers, every shift and every call has a sense of ambiguity, says Dr. Jay Phillippi, staff psychologist at the Fargo (N.D.) VA Medical Center and also a former police officer. Officers cannot trust that they will come out of a situation safely, and over time, that can wear away at their resilience. They can become irritable and resistant to even the smallest change.
Coping strategy: Try to develop your own post-call or post-shift routine, so if something goes awry you have something stable to return to. Some examples may be heading back to the station and writing a report right away, or calling your spouse and discussing dinner plans. “You’re looking for something very well established and grounded that helps put you back in the here and now,” says Phillippi.
Cause: Enduring public surveillance through a 24-hour news cycle, social
media and camera phones.
Symptoms: Conducting yourself while on camera, or even feeling like you’re on camera, creates a heightened experience. Your emotions may be difficult to control, and things may feel like they’re happening faster than they already are. This can lead to overreacting, or on the flip side, indecision while on scene. Either way, officers who feel their actions are always being captured and scrutinized may eventually develop a dislike for the community that they are charged with serving, says DeLong.
Coping strategy: DeLong’s advice is to quit media cold turkey. Don’t read or watch the news, but if you just can’t help it, avoid the comments. Definitely talk with your fellow officers or administrators, but don’t get sucked into belittling the community you serve. Communicating with your family or other positive neighbors will help you keep perspective.
Cause: Exposure to too much human misery can numb your feelings toward the people you serve.
Symptoms: Officers in the throes of depersonalization may come across as wooden, stiff, rude or gruff. They may complain all the time and not show emotion or empathy when dealing with people on calls, even upstanding members of society. “When you have people complaining about you, that’s a big red flag,” says Phillippi.
Coping strategy: The best remedy for depersonalization is balance, says Phillippi. Participate in activities that are not police-related in your downtime. Embrace your family or support system to lift you up. Police administrators shouldn’t let their officers feel like they’re fighting an uphill battle alone, Phillippi cautions. If departments recognize that some of their officers are struggling with depersonalization issues, they should organize police-related activities within the community. “For example, my previous department in Moorhead, Minnesota, runs a Cops ’N Kids hockey game where members of the various law enforcement departments play a game to raise money for charity. It’s a great way to get officers involved with real people in the community so they can see real value among the people they’re serving,” says Phillippi.
Cause: A sense of entitlement that comes from seeing people die unexpectedly, both from civilian and fellow officer deaths. Officers begin to justify living beyond their means because they think they’ll die young, too.
Symptoms: Samuels says overspending is often the result of officers stuffing their feelings inside for too long. “It’s another example of a high-risk behavior like drugs or alcohol or gambling that gives them an adrenaline rush,” she says. The problem is that it creates a vicious cycle within their family. The officer has spent so much money as a coping mechanism that they need to start working more overtime. Then, their spouse or children begin complaining that they never see the officer anymore. The officer becomes angry with their spouse or children for not respecting the amount of time he or she is spending at the job to afford their nice lifestyle. Everyone feels angry and disappointed. The officer may then buy more stuff to make everyone feel better, and the cycle perpetuates. Families get torn apart when the spouse finally decides enough is enough.
Coping strategy: Therapy will likely be necessary to break the cycle, but the officer has to be open to admitting something isn’t right and swallowing a bit of pride. “An officer will really have to hear what people are saying without being defensive,” says Samuels. It often takes the threat of divorce and losing time with children, however, before an officer will grasp the need for change, she says. Once an officer reaches that point, it’s like an automatic wake-up call in most cases. “They realize that once they’re done with this career they really want their family in their life and their behavior is affecting the long-term likelihood of that happening.”