Police officers appear very much the same on the surface. Badges on their chests, service weapons holstered around their waist, leather brightly polished, going about their duties either actively or passively for all to see. Beneath this public persona however there are other things police officers share that are not visible to the public eye, let alone given much thought. PTSD – The Killer Among Us
So what are some of these invisible threads woven into the fabric of our women and men in law enforcement? Although there are many, here are a few. First, they make up a cross section of our socioeconomic community where gender, race, religious belief, or political affiliation has no significance with respect to those who serve, or those who are recipients of their service.
Second, police are highly educated in their respective fields. Hours are spent within the classroom, outside the classroom in simulated situations, and upon academy graduation, on the job itself.
Third, police officers are required to respond to the unforeseen crisis that requires their immediate attention. There is no such thing as a normal workweek in police service simply because no one knows what’s going to happen next, or when.
Fourth, emergency workers witness events that people employed outside emergency services don’t see. Police officers witness the gruesome destruction of the human body up close and personal; so much so, the best Hollywood make-up artists would have trouble recreating what officers see.
In most cases, officers are required to file written documentation of what they witnessed. Want to remember something? Write it down. Want to remember it with greater clarity? Take a picture of it. Want to erase those words or images? Hit the delete key. Easy in this age of computer technology, but what if you want to delete those images from your mind? The ability to hit delete is not a function afforded the human body, which controls the most complex computer of all: the brain.
Fifth, in some cases, especially in smaller communities, some officers respond to calls where they know their victims: friend, neighbor, or someone they went to school with. Officers are schooled to block out personalities to allow for maximum performance capability on the street, but how many training hours are spent on managing individual thoughts once shifts have ended and heads hit the pillows?
Sixth, officers work in a state of constant readiness. Hours can pass with very minimal activity followed with unexpected chaos. Although police reaction can range from minimal to off the chart, individual officer hyper-vigilance remains at a constant high, as does their sensitivity.
Seventh, officers often bring their work home with them. Not that they want to, but unlike their computers and cameras, their minds can’t be turned off with a flip of the switch. So they take their work home in their heads, not in brief cases like other professions. For obvious reasons they do not share any details of what they saw with those they love, so those thoughts get locked away inside the mind. The general public doesn’t give too much thought to all of this, and for the most part, neither do police officers. As the old saying goes, “Hey, it’s all part of the job.”
Depending upon the makeup of the individual, repetitive response to emergency police calls can over time lead to a medical condition know as post-traumatic stress disorder; a medical condition that can be debilitating, and in some cases, just a lethal as a bullet.
Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms are generally grouped into three types: intrusive memories, avoidance, and increased anxiety. Symptoms of intrusive memories may include flashbacks during waking moments or upsetting dreams of the traumatic event while asleep. Avoidance symptoms, sometimes referred to as emotional numbing, include: trying to avoid thinking of the event, feeling emotionally numb, avoiding activities that once brought enjoyment, feeling hopeless about the future, trouble concentrating, memory problems and difficulty maintaining close relationships.
Symptoms of anxiety, sometimes referred to as emotional arousal, may include: anger, irritability, shame, guilt, trouble sleeping, being easily frightened, and self-destructive behavior, such as excessive use of alcohol or drugs. Regardless of individual symptom type, the disorder can disrupt a person’s mental wellbeing, leaving them in a state of general unrest with greater risk for eating disorders, substance abuse, and depression.
Not all police officers acquire post-traumatic stress disorder. The best estimate is that approximately 30% do. Some officers have difficulty adjusting to their surroundings for a while after a traumatic episode, and with the passing of time, depending upon the individual, improve on their own. In other cases the symptoms can get worse, lasting for months and even years.
Seeking medical treatment as soon as possible after post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms develop may prevent long-term distress. One thing that prevents some officers from seeking medical intervention is the stigma they assume is associated with the disorder. Having a troubled mind brings with it the connotation of being mentally unstable.
This is a condition deemed not desirable in someone given exclusive authority to control a crisis situation, let alone carry a loaded firearm on his or her hip. There is nothing to be ashamed of if you suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. If you have symptoms of this condition your mind is more normal than you think. What isn’t normal is the profession you have chosen. So what are some of the symptoms?
Loss of sleep, low self-esteem, nightmares, repetitive bad dreams, work avoidance, panic attacks, excessive consumption of alcohol, and feeling disconnected with family, friends and coworkers are warnings that things aren’t right in the emergency workplace. Often, emergency workers who have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder do not understand that their brain isn’t damaged, the human spirit within their mind is.
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The bad news: post-traumatic stress cannot be fixed overnight. The good news is that it can be managed within a short period of time to allow for living in a state of general wellbeing. When it comes to shock and awe, some of officers are more sensitive than others. What profoundly impacts some may not necessarily impact others. Post-traumatic stress is a serious affliction. In acute cases it can be deadly.
PTSD is diagnosed based on what the patient tells the clinician; basically a self-diagnosis. Over the past decade, about a half million veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. As a result, in one of the largest studies of its kind, a team of researchers based out of New York University’s Medical School has begun a five-year study to find bio-markers, that could provide reliable, objective evidence of post-traumatic stress. They are attempting to elevate the standard of mental health to that of physical health.
A person does not go from a shortness of breath to cardiac surgery; they have a series of objective lab tests first. Hopefully this study will take PTSD to that level of testing and take it beyond present day clinical subjective reporting. If successful, this study will provide for a more definitive and reliable means of diagnosis, which should lead to higher quality of treatment those afflicted.
Why is PTSD such an important issue in law enforcement today? In 2012, 127 officers were killed in the line of duty. During that same year, an additional 126 took their own lives. Their average age was 42 with an average 16 years of service. One out of 10 of them were female.
Have you ever considered the fact that a police officer is just as likely to die by their own hand off duty as they are from an armed assailant while on? Regretfully, there are no statistics available to show the number of police marriages that failed in 2012 as a direct result of job stress. Nor are there figures to show the number of officers who chose alcohol as a means to cope under the misconception that things are easier to see through a fog.
A killer walks among us that goes by the name of post-traumatic stress disorder. No wanted posters will be hung in the squad room because this killer in invisible. If a brother or sister officer were to come under fire, our response would be immediate and conditioned.
At this moment, well over 100 police officers in our country are dodging the mental bullet of this killer among us. Police families’ wonder, “What is going on?” “What happened?” Perhaps failing to manage job stress is at the root of this problem.
In an age of budget cuts and reduced in-service training programs, we owe it to each other to talk about this issue, to help make life better for those we work alongside. Having a greater awareness of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress is a great place to start. Having a plan in place to confront it at department levels in the form of post incident stress debriefings, or access to professional counseling is a must, as is taking advantage of new medical research as it develops. Being hypersensitive of our own within the station is equally as important as being hyper-vigilant of those on the street.
Collectively, working together, we can come to the aid of those officers in need of mental backup assistance. Serve and protect the public is what we do. Serve and protect each other is something we have to do too. If we can help just one of our brothers or sisters our effort will not be in vain. Maybe we can prevent alcohol abuse within our ranks, or save a family from breaking apart, and maybe, just maybe, we can prevent one of our own from taking their life.
William May is the author “Once Upon A Crisis,” an informative true story about a police officer cross-trained in law enforcement and emergency medicine, that takes a close look at post-traumatic stress in emergency services from the inside out. He grew up in Townsend, Massachusetts, served in the United States Navy, and retired as Chief of Police in Townsend, Massachusetts, after a thirty-year career. He lives with his wife Jeanne in southern New Hampshire.