Academics & CareerLife Events & Trauma

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Police and Law Enforcement Mental Health and Trauma

Police officers, first responders, patrol officers, and members of the National Guard regularly put their lives on the line to confront cruelties, protect local communities, and deal with society’s most violent members. Law enforcement officers generally perform their duties with dedication, passion, and courage, but stresses can overcome even the most experienced and resilient officers.

Even police officers have their breaking point. For some police officers, experiencing a traumatic event can exacerbate the development of mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Police and Law Enforcement Mental Health and Trauma

What is Trauma for Police and Law Enforcement?

Trauma is an emotional response to a traumatic event, such as a car accident, loss of life, or natural disaster. Shock and denial are normal responses after a traumatic event, while long-term reactions include mood swings, flashbacks, strained social relationships, and physical symptoms.

Common examples of trauma that law enforcement officers may experience include:

  • Experiencing violence crimes
  • Entering dangerous situations, such as shootings 
  • Engaging in hazardous car chases
  • The constant stress of dealing with criminals that might be armed
  • Working with traumatized victims
  • Working on a crisis intervention team or as a mental health first aid officer
  • Accidentally or purposefully killing another person
  • Witnessing the death of a fellow law enforcement officer

Following the police killing of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protestors throughout the United States have advocated for the end of police brutality and defunding of law enforcement agencies, mainly through peaceful protests. Officers might experience a range of reactions to the widespread demonstrations from hope and unity to anger or overwhelm.

Additionally, the constant need to be vigilant, especially in major cities like Los Angeles and New York might leave some law enforcement officers particularly vulnerable to mental health challenges and mental health crises.

What Are The Consequences Of Stress and Trauma for Police and Law Enforcement?

Over time, trauma can take a significant toll on police officers’ mental health, social relationships, and careers. Stress can exacerbate existing mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. Trauma can lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition with symptoms such as:

  • Numbed responsiveness
  • Impaired memory
  • Intrusive images of the traumatic incident
  • Irritability
  • Intense anxiety and hypervigilance
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Depression
  • Public avoidance and social withdrawal
  • Substance abuse

Many individuals struggling with PTSD turn to drugs or alcohol to manage symptoms or gain control. Consequently, police officers face a higher risk of harmful impulsive behaviors, such as substance abuse, addiction, and substance use disorders.

What Should You Do If You’re Experiencing Mental Health Problems?

If you’re experiencing mental health problems, it’s important to remember that help is available. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, law enforcement officers struggling with mental health should take a holistic approach toward mental health and wellness.

  • Therapy: In response to COVID-19, the United States Department of Health and Human Services has relaxed HIPAA regulations to promote public safety and increased access to mental health services. Working with a mental health professional can help you process traumatic events and manage the symptoms of stress.
  • Treatment programs: The Bureau of Justice Assistance provides access to substance abuse and mental health treatment services for individuals within the criminal justice system experiencing co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorders with mental illnesses or co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders. Also, under the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act of 2017, law enforcement agencies and police departments must protect their employees’ mental health by providing access to mental health services.
  • Self-care: Taking care of your psychological health starts with your physical health. Following a healthy sleep schedule, exercising regularly, and eating a balanced diet can help manage stress symptoms. Additionally, consider taking a break from social media.

How to Find Help

If you’re experiencing mental health challenges, it’s important to seek mental health treatment. Although it might feel difficult to open up to a therapist, working with a mental health professional experienced in law enforcement, mental health can help you process traumatic experiences.

If you’re seeking mental health treatment, consider reaching out to a mental health provider through WithTherapy. WithTherapy will connect you to a personalized shortlist of mental health professionals to help you find someone you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements. One of the qualified mental health professionals on the WithTherapy platform will help you develop healthy coping strategies to manage stress and trauma.

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