We’re all too familiar with the negative toll that the toxic aspects of policing can take on an officer’s psyche. Crippling cynicism, ruined relationships, substance abuse, unhealthy isolation—all are real risks of the street, apart from the physical threats.
Here’s a simple but telling test for how you’re faring psychologically during your career. These seven checkpoints were suggested by Det. David Schiff of the Morrow (Ga.) PD at an ILEETA training conference and elaborated on recently in an interview with PoliceOne. Schiff, who entered law enforcement in 1969, holds a master’s degree in psychological counseling and is active in peer counseling training and other police psych services.
He recommends asking yourself these questions at least once a year and retaining the results for future comparisons.
As of today:
1.) What non-LEO friends do you have?
2.) What hobbies and interests are you actively pursuing?
3.) What family members do you have and relate to in quality ways?
4.) What roles outside of law enforcement are you fulfilling (church member, coach, etc.)?
5.) What fun activities do you have scheduled?
6.) What non-law enforcement goals do you have?
7.) Why do you want to be a peace officer?
“These questions reflect elements of a balanced, healthy psychological life,” Schiff explains. “Active involvement in these areas can help armor you against the negatives of the job.
“What you need to watch for is evidence of loss. Have friends or family members dropped out of your life? Did you used to be an avid fisherman but now your rod and reel are gathering dust in the closet? Have you become disillusioned about policing being a way to help people but haven’t replaced that personal motivation with some other positive value that makes the job meaningful?”
And you need to be brutally honest. If you list as a friend someone you haven’t had contact with in months, you’re fooling yourself.
In Schiff’s experience, losses typically become obvious after about five to seven years on the job. By that time police work for many officers has become all-consuming at the expense of other interests. “As losses show up,” he says, “it means you are trending toward psychological impairment that will interfere with your professional performance and your enjoyment of life.”
To prevent or correct straying into dangerous waters, he recommends conscious self-monitoring of your off-duty involvements, having other people who are close to you offer feedback on your answers to the seven questions, and, if necessary, seeking professional or peer counseling.
Your own initiative in maintaining your mental well-being is crucial. “Academies and departments usually give extensive training to prepare you to handle violence on the street,” Schiff says. “But most don’t provide you with target-hardening weapons to defend yourself against the most psychologically dangerous job in America. So you need to arm yourself with weapons that keep you mentally safer.”