Why departments need to develop mental health programs for cops

Stress for police officers consists of an exposure to horrific events witnessed and intervened upon while in the performance of their duties


By Richard L. Levenson, Jr., Psy.D., CTTS, FAAETS, PoliceOne Special Contributor

The job of the police officer is one of the most stressful occupations in the world. Research has shown time and time again that police officer occupational stress is directly related to higher rates of heart disease, divorce, sick days taken, alcohol abuse, and major psychological illnesses such as Acute Stress Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression, and Anxiety Disorders.

Stress for police officers consists of an accumulation of exposure to horrific events witnessed and intervened upon while in the performance of their duties, but even a single event can bring on monumental stress. Debilitating stress can also occur from a hostile work environment within an officer’s department. These events overwhelm normal intellectual controls, as well as psychological coping mechanisms. 

Suffice it to say that these stressors are outside the realm of normal, everyday human experience and even the toughest of the “tough guys” can succumb to the job he or she has been called to. The suicide rate in police officers, due to job-related stress, is significant. 

A Serious Problem
Currently, there are approximately 900,000 sworn officers in the United States, and the epidemic of stress disorders among police men and women has been so high that many departments have instituted mental health programs as preventative measures. These programs have been successful and have led to important outcomes, such as a decrease in the number of police officer suicides (from 300 in 1998 to 126 in 2012). In departments where mental health and wellness programs are absent, however, problems likely remain at a critical level.

In terms of training and experience, police officers are trained to use their firearms when the threat of personal harm or harm to another is imminent. This must be so, as officers are the embodiment of law enforcement and must be able to protect themselves and the public in order to carry out their own professional and legal responsibilities. 

Every officer is trained and retrained in firearm use and safety, and knows the legal ramifications of when to use deadly physical force. Every officer knows that a situation might arise when they will be required to save their own lives and the lives of others through the use of deadly physical force. 

Despite this training, however, statistics show that during a career, 95 percent of officers will never have to use deadly physical force. Further, the vast majority of police officers know and come to expect that in the course of their careers the use of deadly physical force is not a usual or customary part of their jobs. 

There is really no major research on the psychological aftermath of the police officer who has had to take a life in order to protect himself or others. Part of the reason for this finding is the historical and inherent mistrust of others outside of police culture and the stigma of having to talk to a psychologist or police “shrink.” 

In a predominantly male culture emphasizing toughness and a shrug-it-off, suck-it-up mentality, officers are forced to keep their feelings to themselves and resort to unhealthy methods of coping, which result in negative outcomes (such as alcohol abuse, risk-taking behaviors, etc.) While self-care programs show the rates of acceptance of methods to improve police mental health are increasing, there is really nothing that can prepare an officer for the thoughts and feelings that occur in one’s head after involvement in a shooting.

General Considerations
It must be considered that the ramifications of the use of deadly physical force and the resulting psychological stress-producing illnesses that occur cannot be prevented or trained out of police officers; that is to say, that despite any amount of training, most police officers may suffer some major psychological dysfunction or disorder after having to use deadly physical force. This factor is not addressed in police academies, and most officers on-the-job talk about what they hope will never happen. 

However, if it does (stats above), the psychological toll is great. While some believe every officer should have the expectation that one day he may have to fire his weapon in order to save himself and/or others, there is never the expectation that that officer will find himself in a psychological whirlwind succumbing to feelings he doesn’t understand, didn’t know he had, and is at a loss to deal with on his own. 

After the shooting investigation is over and the grand jury has delivered no true bill, the officer goes back to work and many of his peers, supervisors, and those in his community have the expectation that it’s just another day at work – not giving a thought to how the officer might be feeling with respect to the entire critical incident. 

Program Development
Police Departments, police administrators and supervisors must develop in-house training for mental health and wellness. At the very center, these programs should be peer support-based and any peer support team should include a licensed mental health clinician who knows and understands police culture, can speak the lingo, and whose personality attributes can be identified with and accepted by officers. 

Currently, there are a significant number of peer support programs in use by police departments throughout the USA and internationally. Peer support officers normally deal with sub-categories of alcohol abuse, job stress, and domestic dysfunction. An additional and potential sub-category for peer support intervention should be for officers who have had to use deadly physical force. 

About the Author
Richard L. Levenson, Jr., Psy.D., CTTS, FAAETS, is a NYC-based, licensed psychologist in clinical practice where he conducts psychotherapy and mental health critical care for police officers and their families. Dr. Levenson is certified by the Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists as a Certified Trauma Training Specialist, a Fellow of the American Association of Experts in Traumatic Stress, and a former Editor/Managing Editor of the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, the official journal of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. Dr. Levenson is the Department Police Surgeon for the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office as well as four other departments in NYS. He is also Vice Chairman of the Badge of Life Psychological Survival Program for Police Officers, and is the author and co-author of numerous articles on mental health and wellness in law enforcement officers. Correspondence to Dr. Levenson: drlevenson@gmail.com     

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