Schuyler Bright: Police officers’ lack of mental health services puts them at risk
Law enforcement officers commonly work extended hours in ever-changing environments that can cause great mental and physical stress. We may not fully acknowledge the stressors placed on them when we consider their job performance.
The police, along with other helping professions, are built on the premise of helping others, and this often means stuffing emotions. I hope you can see a space where compassion for all must be upheld. That is where a solution likely lies.
The data show that law enforcement suffers from death by suicide in the United States 1.5 times more frequently than the public. Suicide continues to be a leading cause of death among law enforcement, outnumbering all causes of duty deaths combined. Officers are more likely to die by suicide than homicide and four times more likely than firefighters to die by suicide.
We must consider the stigma and professional setbacks of mental health diagnosis among a population that so values strength, self-reliance, controlled emotions, and competency in handling personal problems.
The likelihood of an officer’s history of depression or other undiagnosed mental health issues is high in those who have successfully completed suicide. Accurate statistics are difficult to obtain, but part of the reason for this is that law enforcement is unlikely to admit they need help. Officers may not realize they may be experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress due to limited understanding of its symptomology and onset, as well as a common misconception that PTSD only develops from natural disasters and horrible catastrophes.
In a New Haven, Connecticut study, outcomes were concerning, yet not surprising: 24% of the officers presented with symptoms of PTSD, 9% presented with symptoms of depression, and 19% abused alcohol. Also concerning was that only 46.7% had ever sought mental health care services. Of this number, 45% were diagnosed with PTSD and 40% were diagnosed with alcohol use disorder. Depression among police officers has been considered a silent killer. Symptomology accumulates over time and often goes unnoticed, as it is sometimes dismissed as feeling down or being under the weather rather than being attended to as acute. Depression has been considered the number one cause of death among police officers.
Additionally, fatigue from inadequate sleep, both quality and quantity, can come from a break in circadian rhythms from irregular work shifts. Continual breaks in circadian rhythm can cause serious mental and physical fatigue, which impairs people’s ability to deal with stressful situations and leads to a cycle of fatigue that decreases their ability to perform their job effectively.
All of these factors can combine to create most of the challenges police are faced with today. This is not to say there is no implicit bias — there are factors of bias and racism that that officers have inherited from their parents and grandparents. Many come from families of military or law enforcement backgrounds. When many military personnel return to civilian life, they often join law enforcement. There is a high incidence of post-traumatic stress among returning veterans. How is it treated is important.
In Bend, Oregon, a seemingly fit police officer passed away without warning, and the department decided they needed a different self-care culture than donuts. They instituted a wellness program with in-house yoga, as tactical strategy for health improvement, along with mindfulness. Officers noted they strain and pull muscles less often, are able to respond instead of react more often, and this police department has received national accolades for its pioneering work.
The Bend Police Department and 10 other police departments across the United States participated in case studies (DOJ, 2020) that demonstrate how different programs destigmatize mental health, such as hiring an in-house therapist with mandated quarterly counseling, or creating officer wellness awards, and trainings from mindfulness to morality that improved officers’ health, morale, and community relations, as well as decreasing the likelihood of escalation.
What makes these programs work is that officers are paid to take part and participation is modeled by leadership. These programs need to be replicated nationwide, so officers don’t fear being “benched” and given a desk job for admitting a mental health diagnosis. Of course, depending on severity, more opportunities should be created for officers with diagnoses because no civilian should have to pay with their life for an officer’s poor mental health. But wellness programs in police departments throughout the country is an excellent first step.
In nine of 10 interactions, police are not faced with violence, but their trainings are flipped. In addition, police generally receive less training overall than a barber, interior designer and many other trades. Shouldn’t those with a license to kill have more training than people who wield scissors? Until professional standards mandate more training, with all the complexities around trauma, before another life is lost, our department should look to the example these departments around the country, and support destigmatization and access to mental health services.
Schuyler Bright, C-IAYT, CAS, CMT, CDVSAC is the director of the Holistic Trauma Recovery Institute. She lives in Nevada City.
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