Law Enforcement Mental Health
Mental health includes emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. Not only does the way we think and feel impact our actions, but it can also impact the way that we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.
Our mental well-being is influenced by biological factors such as genetic variations and brain chemistry as well as family history. Most importantly, life experiences such as trauma can impact mental health and can occur through familial violence, domestic violence, drug abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and countless other adverse events.
Not only can being the victim of abuse create trauma, but witnessing abuse can create long-term psychological effects. Work-related exposure can occur from listening to victim stories, reviewing case files, and hearing violent stories.
The mental health of police officers is often overlooked but is a topic that certainly deserves more attention. Compared to the general public, law enforcement officers have a higher risk of developing mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Police officers undergo training that prepares them to keep communities safe. Still, their training may not prepare them for the unique psychological challenges they encounter, such as witnessing domestic abuse, mass casualties, horrific car accidents, or the death of a child. Witnessing these traumatic can have lasting effects, impacting the way officers handle stress.
Stress reduction is critical to ensuring officers stay safe, but with the stigma surrounding mental health services and a lack of resources, many turn to substance abuse. Substance abuse disorders among police officers are estimated to range between 20% and 30% compared to under 10% in the general population. While we can never offer a way to prevent these experiences, bringing awareness to our police force’s mental health can help mitigate the subsequent physiological aftermath.
In 2013, Anthony Espada, a Cleveland Police Department officer and Marine Corps Combat Veteran, was struggling with his mental health after years of dealing with the difficulties of his job. He had already seen co-workers and his brother-in-law (also an officer) commit suicide, a classmate killed in the line of duty, and was one of the primary officers involved in the rescue of three young women who had been kidnapped and held for over nine years. He has spoken about his experience rescuing the young women multiple times, stating, “[I] witness[ed] the horror of being in that house, [and it] became overwhelming. My glass began to overflow”.
“I felt I had two options,” Espada said, “pick up the phone and ask for help, or continue to be that officer with the stigma of not asking for help… My decision was to make the phone call and ask for help. If I had not made that phone call, I would not be here right now… I truly believe I would have been another statistic of police suicides.”
This story isn’t uncommon. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, most police officers face difficulties with alcohol consumption, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal thoughts.
Statistics related to officer suicide tend to increase in cities like Chicago, where there is a significantly higher gun violence rate. A Department of Justice report found that the suicide rate in the Chicago Police Department is 60% higher than the national average, a number that doesn’t include retired officers who take their own lives.
Officer Espada’s story is not unique, and accompanied by data reflects the reality that all across the country, law enforcement officers are challenged by the traumatic events they face on the job. Without proactive mental health care, these events turn into ongoing mental health problems, accompanied by judgment and stigma. At Minaret Foundation, we believe that healing starts with an honest conversation and increased access to mental health resources.
Legislation such as Representative Nelson’s bill SB 64 Relating to a mental health program that includes peer-to-peer counseling for certain law enforcement personnel is a great start to providing adequate mental health resources to officers. Through this work and advocacy, we can ensure that those that care for us are cared for.
While resources may not be readily locally available, many organizations have created spaces for officers to receive the help they need. Crisis lines such as CopLine operate 24-hours a day for those in crisis and offer a first step towards healing.
Both of these organizations are vetted and working hard to fight stigma and provide resources for our officers.
Learn more about the law enforcement mental health
from different perspectives with these three videos.