It’s very difficult not to be psychologically overwhelmed in a battlezone. These types of traumatic experiences, especially if they occur at flashbulb speed, wound a person’s soul and sense of self. PHOTO AP/TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH, AMY PETERSON
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This article is the first in a two-part series on post traumatic stress syndrome; i.e., how it affects investigators and officers, and what we can do about it.
I recently gave a lecture to students enrolled in my criminal justice course on post traumatic stress syndrome in criminal justice professions. After the lecture, I was approached by a student who asked, Why do cops die so young? Why do so many end up divorced and self-medicate with alcohol or drugs?
How do you answer questions like these when the person has no law enforcement experience and has never encountered the dark side of human nature? I merely said, We see too much! Of course that answer was inadequate, but the topic doesn t lend itself to full discussion when the student s experiences are far removed from the claw and the fang of the street.
A Web search reveals hundreds of sites devoted to police-suicide prevention, treatment options for officers suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and counseling centers to treat officers who ve become drug dependent. I recently pulled out a photograph taken 15 years ago of the members of my SWAT team. Heart disease, stroke and cancer have taken eight of them.
My point: If you supervise or are in an investigative position in your department, stress and eventually burnout may well affect your health and your ability to perform efficiently and effectively.
Why is policing a stressful occupation? Police officers are shadow walkers moving between two worlds. On the street, we see, do and experience things that people living ordinary lives don t experience and have no frame of reference for understanding. Police officers continuously move between this abnormal work environment to another world of family, church and normal society.
Our war on drugs, coupled with the decline of traditional social stabilizers (e.g., family, religion, morality, school, etc.) has markedly escalated the continuous exposure of officers to traumatic experiences akin to military combat. As the causal variables of crime have increased (e.g., poverty, unemployment, etc.) and social stabilizers have decreased, our inner cities have become battlegrounds where violence is an everyday way of life and the norm for increasingly larger segments of our population. One only has to walk through the impoverished areas in any of our major cities to see the hopelessness and despair of living under these conditions.
Police officers working in these battlezones are exposed to tremendous trauma at a rate that has exploded during the past decade. Especially affected and at risk are investigators and officers working homicide, narcotics, vice, in the bomb squad and on SWAT teams.
Traumatic events can occur at flashbulb speed and repeat over time, causing wounds to the soul that the psyche has no time or ability to process. Such events include:
- Officer-involved shootings;
- Fatal traffic accidents;
- SWAT or hostage-team incidents;
- Serious assault, rape;
- Barricaded persons, hostage situations, and combat-type entry;
- Narcotic unit assignment;
- Officer-involved hand-to-hand combat;
- Bomb squad assignment;
- Homicide investigation;
- Natural disasters;
- Drive-by shootings;
- Serious injury or death of kids;
- Self-defense combat; and
- Dealing with persons with AIDS, the homeless, mentally incapacitated, etc.
Adding to the constant tension is the disruption to their personal lives whether the officer is on-call or not. The necessity to always remain ready to respond on a moment s notice often results in an inability to fully relax and recharge the person s emotional and physical batteries.
Over time, exposure to this type of trauma and the constant shifting from one world to another often damages an officer s physical, spiritual and psychological well-being. It s difficult to remain mentally healthy when we must psychologically cope with emotional overload. When an investigator responds to a murder scene in which a mother killed her two-week-old baby by placing the baby in a microwave oven, for instance, it certainly affects the detective s mind. Depending on an individual officer s adaptive capacity and psychological hardiness, we suffer varying degrees of wear and tear to the body and mind that produces anxiety, depression, tension, aggression, etc.
The emotional exhaustion resulting from continuous exposure to this type of stress related trauma can ultimately cause an officer to change from a positive, service-oriented, care-giving person to one who is uncaring, negative and callous. If the trauma is repeated often and over a long enough period of time, officers exhibit body/mind responses commonly referred to as burnout.
Blocking It Out
Using an individualized hit-or-miss system, most officers develop healthy coping mechanisms to process traumatic events, and in a relatively short amount of time return to normal. However, the impact of what they ve seen and may have been required to do often falls short of the expectations they ve established for themselves, resulting in conflict between what we would have liked to have done and what actually occurred. This loss of self-esteem often leads to depression and a sense of reduced personal accomplishment. The point: It s very difficult not to be psychologically overwhelmed in a battlezone. The mind doesn t have time to process what has happened, so it copes by blocking or hardening the area around the wound, creating a defense mechanism that protects the person from consciously dealing with the enormity of what has occurred.
Although we may have developed an ability to push what we see into a corner of our mind so we can work, eventually what we experience must emerge and be processed. It s difficult to rationally reason when you re scared, horrified, in physical danger or disbelieve what you re seeing and hearing, so we do it later. And as the bandage around the emotional trauma wears off, often years later, the detrimental effects of suppressed emotions emerge in the form of ulcers, depression, anxiety, asthma, headaches, nausea, irritability, mood swings, insomnia and impotence.
Because the police culture constantly reinforces emotional hardiness as a precursor to success and often devalues the need for therapeutic assistance, we suffer from the detrimental effects of traumatic experiences, often dying at an early age, most often alone. Officers who ve haven t developed coping mechanisms or psychological hardiness experience more severe forms of stress responses, including alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide, hypertension and manic depression.
When police work drains officers of their emotional energy, there s little left over for family and friends. We become burned out, drained by the emotional energy required to wear the badge and carry the gun, and less willing to share what energy we have left with others.
Consider the following symptoms of burnout:
- A sense of limited ability to accomplish personal and professional goals;
- Loss of self-esteem;
- Reduced motivation, increased frustration;
- Doing the bare minimum, going strictly by the book;
- Preferring things rather than people and treating people as obstacles rather than fellow human beings;
- Avoidance of eye contact or physical contact with the public; and
- Never smiling, giving no reply to questions or answering only with a grunt.
Are We in Trouble?
Constant exposure to the stressors of policing and living between worlds has caused many of us to turn down the light of awareness and drown out the voice of reason. The defense mechanisms and psychological toughness many have built around themselves to avoid the pain of what they see and do hardens their hearts and sometimes distorts their judgment.
Many officers I speak with are unhappy with their jobs and life in general. They speak of policing in terms of surviving the system, and they just go through the motions and try to stay out of the system s way.
Others describe a feeling of emptiness in their lives. They have allowed themselves to be paralyzed by stagnation, indifference, frustration and apathy.
Many more live lives of quiet desperation. We turn to self-medication alcohol or drugs to cope with what we ve experienced.
In my era, it was unheard of to seek help. Toward the end of my career, departments began to use employee-assistance programs, but we had little or no training on the effects of job-related stress, and such programs remained under-utilized.
Today s police officer has access to a host of professional and confidential programs, and most departments require sergeants and above to receive training to recognize the symptoms of post traumatic stress syndrome and what to do about it. My next article covers how to cope with job-related stress and the different services offered to assist officers in leading psychologically and physically healthy lives.
I m not a medical doctor, and this article is based solely on my personal experiences. If you suspect you re suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, seek help though your employee assistance program. If your agency doesn t have one, check with your medical insurance carrier regarding your ability to access a trained counselor.