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5 myths and truths about officers and PTSD

Improving the ability of LEOs to recognize when to seek help

As a mental health provider and specialist in the treatment of posttraumatic stress exclusively serving law enforcement, first responders and members of the military, I regularly meet people who are severely traumatized. According to one study, 35% of police officers meet the criteria for PTSD. [1] Compare this to the lifetime prevalence of PTSD among the general population of 3.6% for men and 9.7% for women. [2]

It is encouraging to see how far law enforcement culture has progressed in recognizing the critical role of mental health in officer safety and wellness. Even so, PTSD continues to impact thousands of officers each year. Sadly, many of these officers receive little or no help, leading to significant time away from work, to leave their chosen profession prematurely, and sometimes end their own lives.

To encourage law enforcement officers in their efforts to understand PTSD, I want to address five common myths I hear about PTSD in the police community. By squashing these myths, my goal is to improve LEOs’ ability to know when to seek help, and to strengthen their capacity to get the support they need to heal.

Myth 1: As a law enforcement officer, it’s only a matter of time before I get PTSD.

Fact: Most LEOs will not develop PTSD.

While officers are exposed to traumatic events at alarmingly high rates compared to the general public, trauma exposure alone does not necessarily lead to PTSD.

Humans are wired for resiliency: we are built to withstand severe hardship and trauma. Researchers don’t fully understand why some people develop PTSD and others don’t. We do know that there are known risk factors, including social isolation and a history of childhood trauma, as well as protective factors, including strong connections with others and healthy living habits.

Myth 2: Having PTSD means I’m weak.

Fact: PTSD impacts some of the strongest people among us.

No amount of physical or mental toughness can completely prevent the onset of PTSD. There is a misperception that “tough” people handle things effortlessly, that nothing gets to them. I often hear stories from my clients about some of their fellow officers, whom they believe are bulletproof. They typically describe these officers as incredibly physically fit and stoic. But sometimes, these are the very kinds of officers who avoid, rather than confront their emotions, and use coping mechanisms like alcohol, busyness, or other compulsions to push away difficult feelings. Unfortunately, avoiding, rather than confronting our reactions to traumatic events is very often a precursor to the development of PTSD.

It is normal to experience distress after an abnormal event like a critical incident. Working through the discomfort, often beginning with speaking with a trusted peer or participating in a critical incident stress debrief (CISD), rather than pushing it away, is helpful in reducing the long-term negative effects of a critical incident. However, it’s important to note that even when officers handle a difficult experience well, they can still develop PTSD. PTSD is not a choice.

Myth 3: PTSD will never go away.

Fact: PTSD is one of the most treatable mental health conditions.

Many of the officers I meet believe that once someone has PTSD, they must live with it forever. Nothing could be further from the truth!

People often ask me how I’m able to do my job, listening to stories of people’s worst memories and experiences day in and day out. My answer is always the same: I get to see officers recover and reclaim their personal and professional lives. PTSD is not something just to be managed; it really can go away. The memories will always be there, just like lingering pain from an old bone fracture, but with the right treatment, the hypervigilance, irritability, fear and lack of control over the memories will lessen and disappear.

Myth 4: PTSD requires a lifetime of therapy.

Fact: PTSD typically can be treated in months, not years.

One of the best parts of treating PTSD is being able to see people feel better quickly. For this to happen, it’s important for LEOs to find a clinician specifically trained in an evidence-based model for treating PTSD, not merely someone who says they treat PTSD or trauma on their website without any further information.

The three models with the most consistent research to support their effectiveness are Prolonged Exposure (PE), Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). In my work, I’ve seen people recover from PTSD in as few as five or six sessions, but four to six months is often a reasonable timeline. It’s also important to mention that treatment is more effective when LEOs work with a clinician they trust who understands and respects the unique challenges of police work.

Myth 5: I don’t deserve therapy. Other people have it worse than I do.

Fact: Everyone experiencing PTSD, regardless of the severity of the traumatic event or their symptoms, deserves to feel better.

It’s always possible to find someone who has it harder. I have had clients tell me that they feel guilty for taking a spot on my schedule, believing that it should go to someone who “needs it more.” And while it is understandable that LEOs, who voluntarily risk their lives to protect others, might see it this way, it’s vital for LEOs to prioritize their mental health and get the help they need. As the saying goes, put on your own oxygen mask first.

PTSD drastically impacts people’s ability to move through life: it can lead to physical health complications, withdrawal from social and interpersonal connections, and even suicide. I meet many officers each year who are unable to function effectively at work or at home because of the debilitating effects of PTSD. No matter the cause or severity of the PTSD, nobody deserves to live with PTSD longer than they must.

Officer Wellness Action Items from Police1
Use and share these resources to care for your emotional and mental health
Download the eBook to access strategies to help agencies and officers develop wellness programs and other coping techniques
Identifying the symptoms of stress in your life will help you to develop a personal resilience plan
Law enforcement officers need to be proactive in self-care to ensure they are resilient in the midst of loss and trauma
A crowd-sourced educational stress management experience with Mike Taigman and Angela Leath for cops, firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, 911 telecommunicators and correctional officers

References
1. Austin-Ketch TL, Violanti J, Fekedulegn D, Andrew ME, Burchfield CM, Hartley TA. (2012). Addictions and the Criminal Justice System, What Happens on the Other Side? Post-traumatic Stress Symptoms and Cortisol Measures in a Police Cohort. Journal of Addictions Nursing, 23(1), 22–29.

2. Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Merikangas KR, Walters EE. (2005). Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of 12-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62, 617-627.

This article, originally published March 7, 2022, has been updated.

Johanna Wender, MA, LMHC, LPC, is a mental health counselor and president of Bravura Counseling, a practice exclusively serving LEOs, first responders, service members and veterans. She is also the proud wife of a retired police sergeant. Johanna has extensive clinical experience working in a wide range of mental health service settings and specializes in evidence-based treatment of PTSD and other related concerns. In addition to her clinical practice, Johanna provides training and consulting services to law enforcement agencies and a wide range of other clients.

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