Since 2018 marked the 2nd year where police suicides outnumbered line of duty deaths, more and more people are starting to talk about the mental health of our law enforcement officers. People have been discussing repetitive, cumulative PTSD as the culprit, and really, it’s so much more than that. My discovery and research of Law Enforcement Distress Syndrome (LEDS) is aimed at improving the mental health and quality of life of our cops.
I’m one of many voices coming through this year opening a much needed dialogue about the health and wellness of our law enforcement officers.
At 42-years-old, I’ve only recently learned the true meaning of empathy. I thought empathy was trying to understand the experience of what someone else is going through. In her book Dare to Lead, Dr. Brené Brown teaches that empathy isn’t really about connecting with someone else’s experience, it’s more about connecting with someone’s FEELINGS.
And that’s what I’m asking from you today—is to try your best with an open mind and heart to connect to how it would feel to experience the emotions I’m going to describe, as I walk you through the EVERYDAY experiences of many of our police officers. Because despite the fact that our storylines are different (storylines being what’s happening in our individual lives that is bringing up certain emotions) we all know what it’s like to experience pain, sadness, or rejection. In other words, the experience of sadness is something we can all relate to regardless of what happened.
Now let’s imagine for a moment that for 40+ hours a week, your job is to respond to awful things that have happened in your community.
Imagine: You go to house after house that’s been broken into. You tour around the residence with the homeowner as they discover item upon item taken from them. You watch them sob when they think about their mother’s wedding ring that has been in the family for generations, now stolen. You watch as they attempt to process how they are going to deal with no longer feeling safe in their own home.
Imagine: You are dispatched to call after call of people who’ve had their car stolen or broken into. Cars which were left running, valuables left in plain sight, or sometimes none of the above, just rotten luck.
Imagine: Each night in America, hundreds of thousands of couples are having a wonderful, loving evening, snuggled up in each other’s arms, but you talk to none of those people. The couples you meet are fighting. Often, one of them has physically hurt the other, sometimes very badly.
Imagine: All the millions of babysitting jobs every day that are handled without a hitch, yet the one you went to ended when the nanny put a pillow over the baby’s face to stop her from crying and now that helpless child is dead.
Imagine: All of the people on romantic dates on any given night. Some promising and others maybe not so, yet the date you responded to ended up with a woman being held against her will and raped after she tried to say no.
Imagine: Covering the ambulance on tons of different accidents. Someone has fallen from a ladder while putting up Christmas lights, another man had a 7-inch shard of wood shoot back from a table saw and stick in his eye, other people were just going to the store when they were hit by a drunk driver. Day after day you see people who were hit by a train, bus, or a car while going about their day.
Imagine: Most every person you talk to over and over has been victimized in some way. They were impersonated, assaulted, robbed, stabbed or shot. Some of them were so depressed they killed themselves- once I remember even a young teen who did it in the backyard with a shotgun to his head. He was later found by his mother.
Now. What effect do you think all of these emotional, usually graphic and negative experiences would have on YOU as a police officer after One year? 5 years? What about 10 years or more? How would this change you as a person?
Do you think over time this exposure could cause you to believe the likelihood that your regular daily activities will result in loss, injury or death is greater than it is? It can.
So, I want you to imagine being anxious, overly vigilant, fearful that whatever you’re about to do could go wrong. I want you to imagine that the perceived probability of that happening is far greater than it actually is. I want you to imagine starting to distrust others? I want you to imagine beginning to Isolate yourself because you think it will protect you and keep you safe, and of course reduce the anxiety you are constantly feeling. I want you to imagine being paranoid, distrustful, anxious all the time. I want you to imagine that leading into depression? In really bad cases, what if you turned to alcohol, drugs, or even thoughts or attempts of suicide?
2018 marks the second straight year in a row where police suicides outnumber line of duty deaths, according to data from Blue H.E.L.P and Officer Down Memorial Page. 140 police officers and 103 firefighters committed suicide, whereas 129 officers and 93 firefighters died in the line of duty whether in an accident or at the hands of another.
There is very little dialogue about this issue, as there are several obstacles involved that are hampering the discussion on handling and preventing a repeat of this horrible statistic. So I want you to imagine experiencing these feelings and symptoms and then not being able to talk about it. And why wouldn’t you talk about it?
First, many police officers are worried that asking for help could trigger a cycle where they are re-evaluated as to their fitness for duty. They worry they could end up suspended, fired, or on “special assignment” often referred to as the “rubber gun squad”, with no ability to return to regular assignment. The bottom line is this: would you be willing to risk your livelihood and the security you provide for your family to ask for help?
There’s also the stigma around depression and mental health issues.
Yet another problem hampering the discussion is the perception and maybe even the truth, that many in the public, media, and even their own department don’t support police officers?
My research shows 90% of cops feel the media is against them.
94% feel that the public doesn’t understand the job of police officer.
52% of respondents believe their department supports them.
Perhaps worst of all, 53% of cops feel they can NOT talk to their own family about work.
So, these feelings of hypervigilance, revenge or vengeance paranoia, anti-social behavior, distrust of others, depression, anxiety, and so forth are happening, yet many feel they need to handle it on their own, and not all of them are equipped to.
Psychologically, what is happening inside the minds of our police officers?
Certainly, some are affected by PTSD. PTSD can result after witnessing or experiencing a terrifying event — either witnessed or experienced. There are many symptoms which could accompany PTSD: Intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions.
PTSD is certainly an issue for law enforcement and in particular those who have been through or witnessed a critical incident. In fact, PTSD in first responders is five times more frequent than in the level of civilians. Yet there is very little being done to address this and again, little dialogue about it.
Another issue, also with little discussion is what I’ve called Law Enforcement Distress Syndrome or LEDS. Unlike PTSD which results from witnessing or experiencing ONE traumatic event, LEDS has a slow onset after responding day after day to MULTIPLE traumatic events. I believe LEDs is having a disparaging impact on the quality of life and wellness of law enforcement officers.
LEDS at its core is experiencing and witnessing day after day violence, victimization, hurt, loss, pain, violence, gore, and death and that SLOWLY convinces you that the likelihood of these things happening, in general, is much higher than it actually is.
Symptoms of LEDS include: Hypervigilance, Revenge / Vengeance paranoia, anti-social behavior, distrust of others and motivations, chronic fear caused by fatalistic thinking, adrenaline addiction, depression and suicidal thoughts, and in some cases alcohol or substance abuse issues.
To read more about LEDS, head to my website at www.stevewarneke.com
So far my research has only included former and current law enforcement, but it may very well extend to all first responders.
For now, let me share with you some excerpts from some of the people who have contacted me in what has been an overwhelming response to my writing and research:
One person writes to me, “I feel like I’m stuck in a maze and cannot find my way out to figure out who I am supposed to be now.”
Another writes that after she saw a coworker murdered she had to get out of the job. She said “LEDs describes my daily life to a T.”
Another former officer wrote, “You put into words exactly what I have been going through.” He ended his note saying “I’m 50 now and it’s getting worse as I age.”
And even some who contacted me are experiencing more severe symptoms of LEDS, One person writes to me:
“I have exiled myself from most of my lifelong friends and even family members (outside wife and children). I have about a 30-minute limit to comfort even in family gatherings which will result in me having to leave or seclude myself if at home during any gathering”
Here’s another officer’s email to me, “As well as not wanting to ever go out in public while off, when I’m home and it’s time to go to bed, I check the doors several times, always make sure my gun and myself are positioned properly to defend a home invasion, any unknown noise and I’m up clearing the house, and if my 7-year-old son sleeps in at all, I go in his room and check to make sure he’s breathing. I’ve seen so much death and evil, my mind always goes to the worst possible outcome.”
The ultimate goal of my research is to try to find prevention, management, and treatment for those whose quality of life is affected by the mental ramifications of doing their job—a job might I add which is brave and selfless. Without the dedication of these brave men and women, our way of life as we know it would not be possible. We’ve seen examples after major disasters of just how close the country is to being terrorized by the small minority of criminals and anarchists who would wreak havoc at the first opportunity. This is why it’s so important for us, the silent majority to reach out and help the men and women who help us.
I want to leave you today on a positive note. The first step in making progress to help improve the quality of life of our first responders is the media and general public starting the process of connecting with the feelings they are having caused by the job they do. To our first responders, there is hope for those of you struggling, for the almost 47% of you I’ve surveyed who’ve said you feel more depressed since becoming a police officer.
I’ve been approached by and/or found several potential methods of management and treatment since beginning this work.
In addition to traditional counseling and mental health work, there are now ministries dedicated to helping cops. There are non-profits starting up, dedicated only to law enforcement so they don’t end up in the bed next to the person they just dealt with at work. There are support groups, mindfulness practice (as one Oregon lieutenant is teaching), and of course, the one I’m most excited about as a dog lover is the potential to use actual service animals!
Former and current law enforcement— I still need your help. If you haven’t already, please take my 15-minute survey at www.stevewarneke.com.
For the mass public- your police officers need your love and support. Beginning to connect with empathy is that first step. Your openness and compassion will speak volumes. Learning more about being their job is important as well. I do that in my book, From Boy To Blue, which is available at www.stevewarneke.com.
A percentage of the proceeds is funding my research and efforts.
– Steve Warneke