What is the extent of the mental health crisis in law enforcement?

Both organizational stress and responding to critical incidents impact the mental health of officers nationwide

This article is reprinted with permission from the IPSA blog.

By Jessica Dockstader

Police officers experience many traumatic events throughout their career. A 2015 study found that on average, law enforcement officers experience 188 critical incidents over the course of their career.

It is imperative to impress upon the law enforcement community that their officers might be suffering from post-traumatic stress.
It is imperative to impress upon the law enforcement community that their officers might be suffering from post-traumatic stress. (Photo/Pixabay)

In response to critical incidents, officers can develop negative coping mechanisms, experience symptoms of and/or develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other co-occurring psychopathological disorders. Additionally, factors such as organizational stress, stigma surrounding mental health within the department, a lack of mental health literacy on the part of the officer, and a lack of leadership surrounding mental health in the department can also lead to an officer developing PTSD and/or using poor coping mechanisms.

Factors contributing to the ignorance and dismissal of the mental health crisis in law enforcement stem from mental health stigmas held across the United States and within the law enforcement community. Other contributing factors are the unwillingness to establish a mental health baseline in currently operating officers based on the fear that some of them may be unfit to serve.

The challenge is in establishing that police officers are, like all human beings, affected by trauma without implying they are unable to do their jobs. It is imperative to impress upon the law enforcement community that their officers might be suffering from post-traumatic stress, which in turn can impact the way they do their job.

Researchers must determine if the effects of prolonged exposure to traumatic events throughout a law enforcement professional’s career can be offset by mental and emotional health training at the beginning and throughout said law enforcement professional’s career.

Below are 10 recommendations for law enforcement agencies and researchers to address these issues:

1. Centralize mental health resources

Develop an area within the department where all resources available for officer mental health and wellness are centralized and can be easily accessed. This will simultaneously accomplish two goals: reducing the stigma of receiving help and ensuring every officer knows where to go to seek help.

2. Partner with mental health organizations

Partner with mental health organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness and/or former law enforcement officers who have experienced and overcome mental health issues to deliver presentations to officers on how to recognize signs of mental illness within themselves.

3. Collect data on officer suicides

Begin to collect data on the suicide rate of officers from the department, and contribute to the new data platform, a partnership between the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.

4. Prepare lateral transfers for critical incidents

Lateral transfers coming from a smaller department to a larger one may be more severely impacted by critical incidents. Ensure these officers receive appropriate training and assistance as they integrate into the department.

5. Recognize the impacts of understaffing on officers

During the ongoing nationwide staffing shortage, it is important to emphasize mental health awareness and self-care for officers. Researchers found that officers were 28.4% more likely to seek help for symptoms related to mental illness when they had received an extra hour of sleep; thus, it is imperative to better understand the impact of shift work and sleep deprivation on officers.

6. Improve the organizational culture

Research has shown that organizational stressors have an equal or greater impact on law enforcement officers than critical incidents. Bring in an organizational consultant to assess and address issues that could be negatively impacting the department.

7. Establish partnerships with research organizations

Partner with local and/or national research organizations to integrate evidence-based practices in the department. Without coordinating these partnerships, the department, officers and communities you serve have the potential to be negatively impacted.

8. Conduct research inside departments

Develop relationships with law enforcement departments to conduct research with their officers to determine their level of mental health literacy, attitudes toward mental health treatment, and to begin to determine how many officers are struggling with PTSD and PTSD-related symptoms.

9. Develop safety protocols for officers

Law enforcement officers have a large fear of being “de-gunned.” At the same time, having their weapon can be a risk to them while suffering from PTSD. Researchers and counselors must work with law enforcement departments to create special safety plans to address an officer’s access to lethal means while placating their fear of not being able to work.

10. Educate departments on evidence-based practices

Law enforcement departments have been utilizing Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) despite the fact that it has not been found to accomplish what it claims to. Researchers must develop partnerships with law enforcement departments to routinely update them on the latest evidence-based practices to ensure a robust flow of knowledge surrounding best practices in the field of law enforcement.

About the Author

Jessica Dockstader is an MA candidate at the University of San Diego and earned her BA in Human Development with a concentration in Counseling Services from California State University San Marcos. She is currently completing her master’s capstone on mental health in law enforcement and has worked in the field of police-community relations in San Diego for a year and a half. She also serves as a member of the IPSA Mental Health Committee. Email her at jdockstader@sandiego.edu.

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