These are difficult times to be a law enforcement officer. Already, policing is a difficult profession, more than the public realizes. No other profession requires the balance of perfect verbal de-escalation, soft and soothing mannerisms, an authoritative presence and skills to handle any person’s symptoms—all while being combat-ready and prepared for split-second moments that could be the difference between life and death.
Add these pressures to the terrible actions and events officers see and must interact with, and it is no wonder policing has a PTSD crisis.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is becoming an ever-increasing difficulty plaguing law enforcement. Currently, it is estimated that PTSD and depression effect between 7% and 35% of officers [1,2].
Policing was complicated enough to begin with before 2020 brought new challenging events to law enforcement. This started with the first wave of COVID-19, quickly followed by riots, looting and civil unrest, which is still carrying on today.
If this wasn’t enough, consider the sharp contrast between being hailed as an essential worker, a hero of the community, then having every officer blamed for the death of certain individuals. Naturally, this would cause havoc on psychological health.
A recent online Police1 survey received 1,355 active-duty law enforcement officer responses. Of this number, “47% of the sample screened positive for PTSD, which is approximately 9 to 10 times greater than the prevalence seen in the general population.” Going one step further, 29% of responding officers had moderate to very severe anxiety and 37% tested for moderate to very severe depression. This number is roughly 5 times greater than the prevalence seen in the general population. So, what signs should officers look for in their co-workers and how do we prevent this?
The most common signs of PTSD are: the inability to think clearly, not sleeping well (often due to nightmares), recklessness, constantly triggered by an event, going to great lengths to avoid similar situations and so forth.
Unfortunately, PTSD can be caused by a variety of factors: events involving children, serious on-the-job injuries and officer-related shootings are common ones, though any event can spark PTSD.
The most important thing for officers and leadership to know, besides recognizing PTSD, is knowing how to help and prevent it—for both themselves and their fellow officers.
Instructors can implement techniques such as trauma and stress inoculation training or trauma awareness. Leaders can encourage officers to speak to a department psychologist after a difficult situation. Officers can utilize free resources such as Copline to speak to retired officers who understand and have undergone similar situations.
Talking about PTSD is more important now than ever. As shown in the P1 survey, many officers are reluctant to seek services due to the stigma that surrounds it. They worry that assistance would be seen as a weakness, and they fear job loss and other repercussions in the workplace.
Changing this stigma will take everyone. Police Chiefs, instructors, sergeants, fellow officers—this is a discussion we need to start now. Together, law enforcement is looking out for each other. Together, we are silent no more.
1. Ruderman Family Foundation. The Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide in First Responders, 2018.
2. Yuan C, Wang Z, et al. Protective factors for posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in a prospective study of police officers. Psychiatry Research, 2011, 188:45-50.