Stress in Police Officers: Symptoms & Responses

Stress among police officers has always been a serious subject, but rather than improving as a result of understanding and recognizing it, last year it took a dire turn when more police and firefighters committed suicide than died on the job. In 2017, 129 police officers died on the job but another 140 committed suicide. That’s a significant increase from 106 police suicides in 2016. Many believe that job stress is a significant contributor to the problem.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness says that small police departments experience a far higher rate of officer suicides than larger departments. Those smaller towns and departments may struggle to find time off for officers to get treatment or that are short on resources like functioning equipment and training time, which both contribute to stress, depression, and potentially to suicide. The organization adds that one in four police officers has reported suicidal thoughts.

There is a difference between Acute Stress Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: ASD is the immediate effect of a traumatic event while PTSD is the multi-symptom, cumulative, lingering response to one or more traumas. ASD response may include the inability to experience pleasure normally, a feeling of detachment, restlessness, and hyper-vigilance.

Understanding the causes and symptoms of excessive stress is the beginning of reducing stress and fostering a workplace atmosphere of improved mental health.

Cause of stress

causes of stress in police

There is no single cause of police officer stress. Among the many sources are:

  • Witnessing trauma. Police officers are subjected to many kinds of horrors as a regular part of their careers. Not only must they witness violent crimes, deaths, and tragic situations but they must take control, deal with distraught family members, and assess the aftermath, then relive it many times through questioning by superior officers and court inquiries.
  • PTSD. Police may experience PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as a result of their on the job experiences. Diagnosing and treating PTSD can be a long, frustrating process.
  • Public scrutiny of their decisions. Police officers’ actions and decisions may be picked apart in news reports or online, leading to public derision and self-doubt.
  • Training. Every situation from finding a lost child to confronting an armed robber are part of a police officer’s day. Training may not cover all of these eventualities, leading to job frustration and anxiety about decision-making.
  • Shift work. When officers’ shifts change from night to day and back to night in a brief period the changes wreak havoc on a person’s sleep cycle and stress level, potentially resulting in elevated cortisol hormone levels that impact long-term health.
  • Overtime. Officers are able to supplement their incomes with extra duty, which can lead to a vicious cycle of overwork. Regulations attempt to protect officers by limiting overtime.
  • Management issues. Policing strategies often go through changes according to crime fighting statistics, forcing officers to abandon one set of training principles and to learn another, all to reduce certain numbers. Such top-down management can foster discontent and sometimes distrust in superior officers who might be the gatekeepers of mental health assistance and time off to get treatment.
  • External pressures. Off-the-job pressures can add to overall stress, including family issues, finances, and health matters.

Symptoms of toxic stress levels

  • PTSD changes the way the brain works, often causing anger issues, degraded ability to make good decisions, sleep disruption, relationship problems, and prompting self-medication;
  • Sleep disorders such as insomnia and resulting in an overuse of stimulants;
  • Excessive partying, or a manic lifestyle of relentless hard work and hard play;
  • Depression;
  • Inability to experience pleasure normally, and
  • Disrupted personal relationships, particularly a tendency to develop tunnel vision so that police work and police topics are the central focus of life.

Addressing Stress

addressing stress

Reducing the stigma around first responder stress is key to providing help to those who need it.

Common misconceptions about getting help include concerns that the officer will be removed from duty or passed over for professional advancement. The atmosphere of the police department – whether supportive and understanding or tough and unrelenting – will determine how many officers respond to stress. Those departments that require officers to “tough it out” eventually see a decline in morale, more discipline issues, an increase in complaints against officers, and eventually, a high rate of turnover among the squad as people retire early or look elsewhere for a less-toxic work environment.

Experiencing and witnessing traumatic events requires time to process and recover if a person is to rebound from the experience. Much of the recovery process relies on the individual’s ability to let go of responsibility for a greater role in the event, and this can vary widely from one person to another.

Fellow Officers Can Help

The National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests that fellow police officers may help those who have experienced or witnessed trauma or who are exhibiting signs of depression in the following ways:

  • Offer to listen, and then just listen.
  • Reassure the officer that anger or despair are normal responses, rather than telling him or her to suck it up.
  • Participate in opportunities to provide counseling services by sharing sick time with others who need it (if possible).

Police administration can help

  • Create a mental health officer position responsible for monitoring officers following a traumatic experience and who will implement an array of services and opportunities for officers;
  • Alter your Critical Incident Stress Management protocol to include mandatory mental health checkups with a professional who understands police and who is familiar to and trusted by your squad, and
  • Foster positive associations among the community and the police department to include transparency and support across agencies.

Individual strategies for managing stress

  • Manage finances to reduce the need for overtime pay;
  • Make time to socialize with non-police friends;
  • Find balance in work and play, emphasizing good exercise, sleep, and food/drink habits;
  • Be part of a healthy atmosphere at work by enabling and encouraging fellow officers to take advantage of mental health checkups, and
  • Seek regular assessments from a mental health professional to monitor your responses to events and long-term exposure to PTSD.