A police officer's job is a rewarding experience but can be mentally taxing, given that every assignment features a possibility of witnessing disturbing events. Combined with organizational stressors, these factors can impact a police officer severely, resulting in stress. It's no wonder most police officers are into substance abuse, disorders, and suicidal tendencies. To curb these issues, police departments should offer interventions such as peer support groups, counseling, and stress management training.
Read on to understand what goes inside the mind of a police officer and what police departments can do to ensure their overall well-being.
The police officer job is a high-pressure job comprising expectations from the general public and their departments as follows:
Given the above roles, police officers spend most of their time in depressing and chaotic spaces, which can subject them to an emotional roller coaster, from a moment of action and alertness to isolation and exhaustion. The result is hypervigilance, with some perceiving society as more threatening than it is. At the same time, police departments expect their officers to operate with humanity, integrity, professionalism, and courage, which could be a struggle in the line of duty, resulting in stress.
Stress describes the physiological changes or impact as a result of environmental and psychological stimuli. As stated earlier, police work entails stressful demands, including dealing with abused children, human misery, and instant life-and-death decisions. This, in addition to the societal responsibility and legal norms on them, can burden police officers, resulting in intense stress.
There are two categories of stress in the life of a police officer: those arising from their job content and those from their job context. Stress due to job content includes shift work, work schedules, long working hours, court work, traumatic events, and working overtime, while those from job context or organizational stressors include coworker relations and bureaucracy.
Like any other work setting, organizational stressors in the police department are a major cause of stress as it is part of their daily routine. Sadly, there is less emphasis on these elements compared to operational stressors. In the long run, organizational stressors could cause psychological and physiological responses.
Shift timings are another challenging aspect of the police job, and a poor address could cause adverse health outcomes. Studies relate night and evening shifts with elevated prevalence of poor sleep patterns. Since our bodies are naturally accustomed to sleeping at night, officers who work the night shift will likely struggle with quality sleep. The result is increased administrative errors and safety violations due to fatigue, uncontrolled anger towards suspects, and higher absenteeism rates. These shifts also feature higher long-term injuries and an elevated chronic disease prevalence. Organizational stressors can also cause a change in perception of life and psychological effects such as PTSD, depression, and suicidal ideations.
In addition to the above, boredom is another common stressor among police officers as they spend most of their hours filming the terror events they witness. A police officer is also fearful but has to stay vigilant, never knowing whether they will ever reunite with their families. While fear should keep an officer on their toes, some are too afraid that they end up making mistakes such as pulling the trigger too soon out of fear that they do not take time to assess their threat.
Most of the time, officers worry about reuniting with their families after their assignment or shift. As they work, they are hoping that they do not shoot anybody and that the persons they give oral commands will comply. However, this is not the case, and such officers end up shooting their suspects.
Usually, after such incidents, the officer should seek psychological services if available in their agency. Sadly, these services are unavailable in most departments, and the officer can be in turmoil. Some officers also fear speaking to a psychologist due to fear that it could impact their ability to go back to work.
The impact of stressors in a police officer’s life ranges from mild to severe, depending on the cause. Common effects include headache, fatigue, anger or irritability, and social withdrawal. Over time, a stressed police officer will experience serious health consequences, which can eventually cause death.
Police officers are humans and will respond to stress like any other person. Common stress symptoms in police officers include:
Police surveys indicate an association between stress and poor sleep patterns. One of the studies linked organizational stressors to poor sleep quality with critical incidents exposure related to nightmares. Other studies revealed lower immunity and deficits in cognition due to sleep deprivation.
Adjusting to the police culture can be tasking, and many police officers adopt negative coping mechanisms to manage stress. These include repressing emotions, substance use, and avoidance of family and friends.
Given their nature of work, police officers are susceptible to burnout, which may cause cognitive and emotional distancing from work. A burned-out officer will adopt a poor attitude to their work to insulate themselves from the realities of their work.
Finally, police officers with high stress levels are likely to indulge in domestic violence, either verbally or emotionally. Some research also points out that such officers may also engage in excessive force on civilians.
One way to reduce police officer stress is by providing and increasing support. While there is a history of the police culture's resistance to emotional support, the above realities of what is inside a police officer’s mind and the impacts on their health necessitate intentional steps toward mental health. These include humor, peer-to-peer support, and seeking support from friends and family. In severe cases, liaising with a professional is advisable to address mental health concerns.
Here are reasons a police officer’s mental health should be a priority.
Statistics by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reveal higher rates of burnout, depression, anxiety, and PTSD among police than the general public. Of the statistics, almost 25% of the officers contemplate suicide in their lifetime, hence the need to shift mental health efforts to police departments.
Another alarming statistic by NAMI is the suicide rate among police officers. The number of officers who die by suicide keeps increasing, with the national average for those in smaller departments being higher. Compared to firefighters, the suicide rates among police officers were four times higher.
Every job requires stability in mental health for maximum efficiency. Even more critical is a police officer's job functions, which are crucial to public safety. A police officer’s role includes preparing for emergency and disaster situations, law enforcement, and crime prevention, and a drop in overall productivity of the police, which means threats to the general public, hence the need to invest in their mental health.
Mental health stigma among the police is the main factor that prevents officers from getting help. An anonymous survey revealed the following barriers to mental health services access:
Studies in a Dallas police department reveal a high prevalence of mental illness diagnoses among law enforcers. Female police officers report higher cases of mental health illnesses than their male counterparts, with the odds equally higher for unmarried, widowed, and separated or divorced officers. Military veterans and officers with more than 15 years of experience also have a high prevalence.
Like any other professional, the police officer job features high expectations and pressure from the people they serve and their supervisors. This, combined with their exposure to traumatic events and violence, subject them to intense stress, taking a toll on their emotional well-being and leading to conditions such as PTSD. A stressed officer may resort to harmful coping mechanisms, including substance abuse, which increase their risk of suicidal ideation. Fortunately, as society continues to normalize mental health, the situation in police departments looks promising. With intentional mental health addressed by police officers, there will be improved overall well-being, hence, better job performance, leading to a stable society.