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Police Officers and Mental Health


Written by: Sharon Cohen


Stress and Trauma : Commonly Plague American Police Officers


After the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting in December of 2013, many first responders, including police officers, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With a horrible tragedy, it is not surprising that so many people were traumatized. Very few police departments prepare their officers to deal with the impact of these events and lack support for officers suffering from psychological illnesses. Frequently, insurance programs do not cover mental health treatment, or enough treatment, and medical leave programs may be entirely inadequate for such situations. 


It does not take such a calamitous event as the one in Connecticut to cause serious mental illness problems. Throughout the U.S., large numbers of police officers also suffer from severe depression, anxiety and PTSD as a result of the daily realities of homicides, rapes, car accidents, and violent assaults. In 2012, John Violanti, a professional researcher in this field, found that about 15 to 18 percent of working police officers have undiagnosed symptoms of PTSD. 


Not only are these officers suffering from their psychiatric issues. They are also fearful of being taken off their job--for the short or long term. When police officers seek psychological help, they can be at risk of losing their badge and gun because of the threat to themselves and others.  Even when their department offers mental health services, officers may be hesitant to ask for help. They are concerned about lack of confidentiality or appearing weak.


The symptoms of dealing with daily stressors and traumatic incidents vary considerably, as does the police officer's coping ability. Some individuals have developed ways to relieve their stress or separate on-the-job experiences with their personal lives. Others find themselves plagued by such symptoms such as increased fatigue, insomnia and nightmares, loss of appetite, negative thoughts, depression and anxiety. They are suffering from anxiety that falls short of PTSD yet still affects their work and home life.


In the worst cases, officers can no longer communicate with their family and friends. Many find it difficult to leave their homes and go to work. The Center for Disease Control reports that the suicide rate for police officers is about 140 a year or 17 per 100,000. This is three times the number killed by felons. In 2011, there were 147 reported police suicides and 165 in-the-line of duty deaths--65 of those by gunfire. Violanti reports other stress related diseases, such as heart disease and cancer that are higher with police than the general population. In mortality studies, police officers suffered from disease or died at a much earlier age.


--Police officers can contact Safe Call Now, a confidential, comprehensive, 24-hour crisis referral service for all public safety employees, all emergency services personnel and their family members nationwide.


-- The Badge of Life  organization provides support for active and retired police officers, medical professionals and surviving families of suicides from the U.S. and CanadaThe program is especially concerned with PTSD--the hopelessness, despair, flashbacks, nightmares and insomnia, anxiety and terror and suicide attempts. The "Emotional Self-Care Program" is a preventative approach to suicide prevention, with officers seeing a therapist once a year before any serious problems arise.


--When choosing a therapist, officers should not wait until they can find a "cop doc." Too many delay treatment because they believe they need a therapist who knows police work. Most importantly is finding a therapist trained in stress, trauma, and PTSD, and with whom the officers feel most comfortable.




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