When working to make the community stronger, law enforcement officers will see daily accidents, violence, and conflicts. This type of pressure and stress can add up. Trauma begins to impact the lives and health of law enforcement officers but the trauma can be treated.
What is Trauma?
Trauma can cause the brain to be overactive. It’s a natural response to a perceived threat, but even though it’s natural, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy. Trauma and stressors experienced by law enforcement include witnessing violent crimes, entering dangerous situations, witnessing disasters or murder, working with traumatized victims of crime, being accidentally involved in an injury or death, and fears of retaliation or riots. Trauma doesn’t necessarily have to be rooted in a big event. Regular pressure and job stress add up. When you are a police offer, regular stress is usually a lot more than the average person has to deal with.
The Effects of Trauma and Stress
Over time, the effects of stress and trauma affect your health, career, and family. Stress contributes to mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. Trauma can also lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD. This is a lasting mental health concern that has a lot of symptoms more long-term effects than just trauma and stress alone. Symptoms of PTSD can include depression, anger, and mood swings, panic attacks, and experiencing the trauma through flashbacks and vivid memories. PTSD, stress, and trauma can all lead to substance abuse. When someone experiences unwanted and overwhelming emotions, he or she can turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate the feelings and symptoms.
Signs of PTSD
The first step in dealing with trauma and PTSD is realizing the problem exists. This may not be as simple as it sounds since it can affect different people in different ways. Some of the common symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks, problems remembering the event, unwillingness to discuss the event, trouble sleeping, being startled easily, feeling as if you are always in danger, and pulling away from friends and family.
The Trauma Police Officers Experience
Mental health issues, such as PTSD and depression, often leave the individual feeling isolated and alone. However, the reality is the opposite and there is always help, understanding, and hope. Many police officers report struggling with PTSD but the actual numbers could be much higher since individuals may not get a diagnosis or want to share their diagnosis. Since officers usually underreport any symptoms of trauma or PTSD, substance use among officers can make the problem worse. PEW Trust says that police officers have a 69% higher suicide risk than the average worker. By treating trauma through therapy, empathy, and compassion, the suicide risk doesn’t need to be so high and there can be better healing for families, individuals, and communities.
It can be hard to determine why some cops get PTSD while others don’t. There are a lot of external and internal factors to consider. It can depend on how well a police officer copes with stress and what else is going on in his or her life. The number of other unprocessed traumas and whether there is a concurrent condition, such as depression, can also play a role. The external factors include slanted media reporting, community rejection, and lack of support.
There is also the risk of secondary trauma for police officers, known as compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma. This is an emotional response and the symptoms often are similar to PTSD. It results from indirect exposure to traumatic events through listening to firsthand accounts of the event, which can often be very vivid. In some families, a cop may be reluctant to speak about what happened and this can be damaging to the intimacy that is needed in relationships.
Help for Police Officers
There is treatment available for trauma. There are several forms of therapy that have been effective in treating trauma. These therapy methods are also accessible and standard. The stigma and shame surrounding getting help are what need to be removed, especially for police officers. Many cops feel the need to be superheroes or could worry about their job security if they choose to speak up about their mental health. The only way to effectively manage trauma is with treatment. Healthy coping mechanisms and stress management techniques, which are learned through therapy, can be effective tools in responding to the effects of stress. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as well as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, can also help treat PTSD. Medications are not usually prescribed without supportive therapy services. This is due to medications causing substance abuse issues, regardless of whether or not they are prescribed by health professionals. There are many therapy options for the trauma that can be integrated along with treatment for addiction and substance use.