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Feeling stressed out? Here’s some advice from therapists who’ve taught officers how to cope

With officer suicide rates on the rise, it’s time for us to pay closer attention to the dangers of stress


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By Yoona Ha, PoliceOne BrandFocus Staff

The recent death of a Chicago officer who died by suicide was not just a tragic anomaly. It was the latest marker of an intractable problem that has affected officers for generations. One study showed that in 2017, 140 police officers took their own lives—that’s triple the number of officers who were fatally shot that year. The following year, the problem got worse. In 2018, at least 159 officers were reported dead by suicide.

Despite the reality that there are more mental health resources available to law enforcement officials ever than before, many officers still suffer in silence. (image/iStock)
Despite the reality that there are more mental health resources available to law enforcement officials ever than before, many officers still suffer in silence. (image/iStock)

Despite the reality that there are more mental health resources available to law enforcement officials ever than before, many officers still suffer in silence. Policing is hard work that involves the occupational hazard of either witnessing others’ trauma or going through it firsthand.

Too often, stigma stands in the way of officers who want to get help for their stress, anxiety and other mental health concerns.

Stop the stigma

Jessika Redman, a licensed professional counselor in Colorado, agreed that the mental health stigma is still huge within the law enforcement community. Officers often worry that police administration may take punitive actions against those who seek help for their mental health.

With three consecutive years of increases in police suicide rates, police leaders through the International Association of Chiefs of Police have worked to raise awareness that work-related stress can sometimes have fatal consequences, especially if left unaddressed.

This is a concern that Dr. Ellen Kirschman knows all too well. After all, she’s spent the past 30-plus years working as a police psychologist. Effective stress management skills and self-care can really go a long way, both she and Redman argue. Plus, it’s a no-brainer that when you’re at peak mental and physical health, it positively impacts your performance on the job and relationships with others.

“Officers need to demand an end to the stigma of taking care of their mental health,” Redman said.

Here’s what the experts want you to know about managing your stress:

Even a little exercise can help you take control

Dozens of studies have shown that exercise is proven to improve mood, relieve stress and make you stronger. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to adopt a rigorous routine. Whether it’s walking, swimming or hiking, experts agree that the key is to be consistent.

Exercise can help you channel your response to stressors and become more resilient in the face of frequent and extreme physical and emotional demands of police duties, adds Kirschman.

If you’re interested in taking it a step further, you can also exercise outdoors to improve your mood. Several recent studies have shown that those who exercise outdoors scored higher in vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure and self-esteem than those who worked out indoors or on a treadmill.

There’s a strong case for having a hobby

“Having a life outside of the job is especially important for police officers, who treat police work not just as a job, but rather as an identity,” said Kirschman, who wrote "Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know.” “There’s so much negativity in police work that you need to make a conscientious effort to replenish your life with things that bring you positivity.”

Hobbies don’t have to tie into your work or necessarily be a lifehack related to being more productive. Instead, they should just be thought of as leisurely activities that you enjoy. In fact, the irony is that enjoying leisure time can help you do your job better.

One 2009 study pointed out that more time spent unplugged and involved can lower your blood pressure, levels of depression and stress.  But when the risks of your job are so great that coming home safely is always your No. 1 job priority, you don’t have to justify to yourself or anyone that there’s value in leisure time.

Get support from friends and family

When the pressure is on, it feels great to have a support network you can tap into to feel like you’re not alone during stressful times.

“Officers deserve as much support as we, the family members and friends, can give them,” said Redman, who has worked as a counselor since 2009 and is married to a police officer. “They work in a hypervigilant state, and then they’re expected to know how to turn that hypervigilance off on their own.”

By leaning on those you love, Redman says, the world doesn’t look as challenging, and officers can truly benefit from having connections outside of work.

Know your limits and seek help when needed

One question Kirschman gets often from officers and their families is when an officer should consider working with a therapist or seek additional mental health care.

“There’s a whole list of symptoms that show when someone needs to seek professional help, some of which include inability to sleep and significant distress –but it’s important to remember that suffering is optional,” said Kirschman, who authored the book, “I Love a Cop,” which details the signs family members should look out for.

If you’re not sure how to find a therapist, one way to get started is to ask friends and family members about therapists they enjoyed working with. You can also check to see if your department offers mental health resources, but if you feel uncomfortable with using those resources, you can also check for online resources like the First Responder Support Network that connects officers with therapists who have experience working with law enforcement.

Although there’s plenty of work to be done to overcome the stigma of counseling among law enforcement, there’s an immediate step that officers can take. Only you and sometimes those who know you best understand when you need help and why. Being courageous enough to admit that you need to take better care of yourself can also help set an example for those officers around you who still aren’t sure.

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