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Protecting Our Protectors: Mental Health and the Police

Police officers are tasked with keeping our communities safe. In their training, they learn both how to be in shape for the job, but also about local and state laws, protocols, human psychology, safety, and basic medical knowledge1. All of this is to ensure the safety of themselves and their community.

But putting their lives on the line comes at a cost, including experiencing a wide variety of mental health issues like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and depression2. This is because while their training can prepare them abstractly how to handle a car accident, nothing can prepare them for the emotional toll they actually experience. Police officers are often also first on the scene for other mass casualty events and murders2.

Many times police officers have a persona of toughness and strength, but just because they can handle a tragic situation does not mean their mental health isn’t suffering because of it2. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, one in four police officers has considered committing suicide3. This is four times the rate for firefighters3. What’s most startling, however, is that more police officers die by suicide than in the line of duty3

Within our own Texas Police Department, one out of four officers has symptoms of depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation, and/or anxiety4. Only 20% of those officers seek treatment4. After reporting these findings, researchers for the JAMA network (a medical journal published by the American Medical Association) suggest mental illness needs to be identified systematically, so police officers can then be referred to the healthcare services they need4

So what has been done to help?

It’s important to note that most police officers fear if they are deemed “mentally unhealthy,” they will face suspension or lose their badge2. This fear causes police officers all over the country to go without mental health services. This might explain why only 20% of Dallas-Fort Worth police officers experiencing mental illness symptoms sought treatment4

Additionally, the image of police officers being “tough” and “strong,” makes it hard to have mental health awareness for them as a group even if the statistics show they face a very stressful and traumatic job. Those who do seek treatment, feel like the mental health specialists can not relate to them and what they’ve been through4

These issues in awareness, access, and treatment have led to certain strategies to address police officers’ mental health, which includes increasing awareness of police officers’ mental health issues, connecting police officers with mental health professionals,  and peer support groups. 

National Association of Police Organization’s Director William Johnson says “unions have been at the forefront of seeking to provide mental healthcare for their members4.” This involves creating “peer support units,” that serve to offer counseling to officers dealing with mental health issues4.

These peer support units help create awareness and conversation on mental health issues of police officers. They are important long term because those who had been in law enforcement longer (5-15 years) were three times as likely to have positive screenings for symptoms of mental health disorders4. Working in the field for over 15 years led to a seven-fold increase in the chance of a mental health illness diagnosis5

These statistics themselves are important for bringing awareness to the mental health of police officers. They come from a study first in its kind “to analyze mental illnesses, symptoms of mental illness, and mental health care use among officers at a large, urban police department.6” In focus groups, officers admitted to feeling “numb” to traumatic events6. They are unaware of the impact their experiences of working in law enforcement have on their mental health, so they might not seek treatment6

What’s next?

More studies like the one from the JAMA network need to be done to bring awareness to the mental health issues associated with working in law enforcement. To tackle the fear of losing jobs over a mental illness diagnosis, there must be greater trust between officers and police administration5. This could be peer groups offering confidentiality amongst coworkers first or contracting an independent mental health agency to screen police officers for mental health symptoms5.

Sources: 

  1. “Police Academy Training – What You Need to Know”
  2. “Mental Health Statistics: Police Officers”
  3. “Law enforcement”
  4. “25% of police officers have symptoms of mental health disorders, study finds”
  5. “How Often Do Cops Seek Mental Health Services?”
  6. Prevalence of Mental Illness and Mental Health Care Use Among Police Officers