From burnout to resilience: How therapy can help law enforcement officers
Remember that it’s okay not to be okay but not to stay that way
As law enforcement officers, we face unique challenges in our work, such as high-stress levels and exposure to trauma. These experiences can lead to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI).
Unfortunately, there is still a significant stigma surrounding therapy services. This stigma can prevent many of us from getting the help we need, leading to adverse outcomes for the individual officers and the communities we serve.
The stigma of using therapy is often based on the idea that cops should be able to handle whatever comes their way and that seeking therapy is a sign of weakness and could lead to them losing their job. This harmful and misguided belief can prevent many of us from accessing the support we need to maintain our mental health. Furthermore, this stigma is not supported by evidence. Studies have shown that cops that seek therapy are more likely to be resilient and have higher job satisfaction.
How stress impactEd my performance
If you have worked as a cop for more than a few years, chances are you have been exposed to high-stress levels and trauma, which can lead you down a difficult path of mental health issues. Conditions like depression, anxiety and PTSI can impact officers’ ability to do their jobs effectively and negatively impact their personal lives. For me, it did precisely that.
I was assigned to a special investigation detail, working gangs and narcotics, for almost 10 years, and I was not caring for myself. I felt stressed and anxious most of the time and could not detach from work. All the years of intense work, the homicide scenes I had visited and the violence I had witnessed had caught up with me in the form of cumulative stress.
In the weeks following my departure from the unit, I felt very sick, almost like I had the flu. It wouldn’t go away. I met with my doctor, and he went through my symptoms and ultimately determined I was suffering from symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Like many cops, I told myself I could work through this, nothing was wrong with me, and I made every effort to ensure no one knew about my diagnosis. I made zero changes in my life! I did not work out consistently (well, not at all), I did not make healthy meal choices, I was working night shifts and not sleeping properly, and I still did not know how to detach from the job.
To make matters worse, I was not fun to live with either. I was always yelling at my young children for no reason and unwilling to communicate with my wife, which worsened matters. I would become agitated quickly and find myself yelling, angry, sad and numb. I felt like I was disconnected. Like many first responders, it felt better to be at work and under stress than it was for me to be at home trying to manage it.
The day I reached out for help
Finally, one day, my wife became adamant that I needed to call someone (mind you, she had been telling me to see someone for several months). I needed to take steps to find a way to take care of myself because I could not effectively take care of my family, the deputies under my supervision, or the community. On that day, I called The Counseling Team International, a free, confidential therapy service provided to my agency through donations and grant funds.
I have been regularly meeting with my therapist ever since. I will be honest: therapy is not easy and fun, especially initially. However, I find great joy and relief in my visits with her to decompress and work through my thoughts, tactical breathing techniques and ways to process my feelings in a healthy, constructive manner. I have found many benefits to therapy services; it helps make me one degree better every day.
The most significant benefit I have received from therapy is my ability to work through problems with my kids. I will admit I am not perfect, but I am much better than I used to be. Before therapy, I constantly yelled at my children for everything and did not help them solve problems. I have learned, sometimes with tactical breathing, to communicate with my kids and work through problems, with them, in a way that works for their personalities; I have a much better relationship with all three of my children.
The benefits of seeking therapy
One of the benefits of seeking therapy is improved mental health. Seeking therapy can help cops develop coping strategies, learn how to manage symptoms, and improve overall mental health and well-being. It is essential to understand that parts of therapy, especially at the beginning, will be difficult, and the transformation will not be quick. You will see the benefits if you consistently visit with your therapist, put in the work, and dedicate time to the process.
Another benefit of seeking therapy is improved physical health. Chronic stress can lead to physical health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. Cops can reduce their risk of developing these health problems by seeking therapy and learning how to manage stress levels. Furthermore, therapy can help them on the path to making other changes in their life to improve their overall health, like developing healthy habits such as regular exercise and a balanced diet.
Research has shown that cops who seek therapy are less likely to experience burnout. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion that can occur when individuals are exposed to prolonged stress. Burnout can lead to decreased job performance, dissatisfaction and even early retirement. By seeking good physical and mental health and learning to manage stress levels, we can reduce the risk of experiencing burnout and can continue to perform our duties effectively.
Cops seeking therapy are also more likely to interact positively with the community they serve. Mental health issues such as depression and anxiety can impact an officer’s ability to interact with the public. Cops can develop better communication skills, empathy, and problem-solving abilities by seeking therapy and improving their mental health. These skills can help to de-escalate situations and to build trust between law enforcement and the community they serve.
Finding the therapy that works for you
There are several types of therapy available to cops, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). CBT is a type of therapy that focuses on changing negative thought patterns and behaviors. EMDR is a therapy used to treat PTSI and involves eye movements to help process traumatic memories. MBSR is a therapy that uses mindfulness practices to reduce stress and improve mental health.
Finding a therapist is like dating. Cops need to find a therapist who understands law enforcement’s unique challenges and has experience working with law enforcement personnel. Some therapists specialize in working with first responders and may have a better understanding of the stressors and trauma that cops face. It is equally essential for cops to find a therapist that is right for them. Some will, like me, need a strong therapist to put them in their place when they are off track or need a change of direction in their thoughts, while others need someone who will listen.
Statistics have shown that police officers are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health issues than the general population. A study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that in 2019, more police officers died by suicide than in the line of duty. This highlights the importance of addressing mental health concerns within the law enforcement community and breaking down the stigma surrounding therapy.
A work in progress
I am a different person than when I started this job, and I am okay with that. I have had positive and negative experiences in my career and personal life, shaping me into the person I am today. I am imperfect; I will always make mistakes as a law enforcement leader, husband and father. However, I try to improve myself by continuing to seek therapy services. I am glad my wife pushed me in the right direction to go to therapy, and I am proud of my dedication to the process.
Still, to this day, I find myself experiencing symptoms of stress and PTSI, but I make a conscious effort to improve myself by seeking therapy services. I consistently work out (five days per week), make healthy meal choices, get 6 to 8 hours of sleep, and detach from work when appropriate. I know firsthand that it is not always possible to be efficient at caring for yourself, but when possible, take advantage of it and make every effort to make healthy choices.
Therapy services can have numerous benefits, including improved mental and physical health, decreased burnout and improved interactions with the community. Despite the stigma surrounding police using therapy, cops must prioritize their mental health and seek help when needed. There is no shame in seeking therapy; acknowledging when additional support is needed is a sign of strength. Remember that it’s okay not to be okay but not to stay that way.
Cops face unique challenges in their work, and seeking therapy can effectively manage the stress and trauma of the job. There are various types of therapy available, and it is crucial to find a therapist who understands the unique challenges of the profession. It is vital to prioritize mental health and seek help to ensure that we can continue to perform our duties effectively while maintaining well-being.
If you need help finding resources, check out this resource page for more information. Additionally, you can reach out to me on social media, via email, or through this website, and I will do what I can to get you to the right person.