I came across an article on Police1 “Survey: What is the state of officer mental health in 2020.” By Dr. Michelle Lilly and Sergeant Shawn Curry. I have to admit I am not surprised by the results. One of the reasons I have decided to go into private practice is because I am aware of how much this past year has impacted our law enforcement community. Our law enforcement went from being celebrated essential workers putting their lives on the line as COVID-19 hit to then being villainized over the death of George Floyd. Law enforcement officers have often been verbally and physically assaulted by the same people who have called on them to protect them. They are often met by people who taunt them in order to capture a 30- second video taken entirely out of context for the world to see so they can villainize them even further. They then have to deal with the fear of being betrayed by the same departments and communities they serve if they take an action that the media decides to politicize. There are conversations about police reform and defunding that are leading to policies that leave officers vulnerable and unprotected in a job that requires them to make split-second life or death decisions.
Officers took an oath to serve and protect; they often put their own lives on the line to protect those same people who are criticizing them and are against them. Due to the immense pressure to be perfect, officers are hesitating to take action that can potentially save a life. That hesitation feels like they are failing their communities, and their brothers and sisters in blue; this type of moral injury increases the risk for PTSD, depression, and suicide. Officers face an identity crisis because society has decided to label police officers as killers and monsters when that could not be further from the truth.
The most alarming thing to me about the article is that of the 1,355 officers that completed the survey, more than half of them stated that they feel trapped and hopeless about the job in law enforcement. Did you know that hopelessness is one of the most significant predictors of suicide risk? No wonder suicide has been increasing at alarming rates among officers. It will only continue to worsen if things do not change. Those officers with 5-10 years on the job are most at risk of suffering from PTSD and depression because they feel financially and personally obligated to stay on the job. With retirement still so far away, they begin to feel completely overwhelmed.
Unfortunately, the stigma around mental health is still very much present. Officers report that the most significant barrier to seeking mental health is the fear that their peers will look at them differently. There is fear that they could lose their job, or that seeking help will be used against them when it came to promotions or transfers. There is also a belief that getting help is a sign of personal weakness. Finally, the sense that there is a lack of services that understand them available in the community.
Something needs to change. If there is any reform that needs to happen, it is more education to support our officers. It is administrators and city officials focusing on increasing confidence among officers that seeking mental health services is just as important as seeking physical health services. We need to provide education to disprove false information; for example, that PTSD is untreatable, and it means the individual is unable to do the job, this is false. There are numerous studies and therapeutic interventions such as Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) that have proven effective at reducing symptoms. Furthermore, we need to educate the community that when an officer provides a lawful order, they need to comply and not fight back or resist. That is why we have courtrooms.
For the officers who read this, I see you, I hear you, and you matter. There is help. I am here to help and provide support. Please know that what happens in our sessions is confidential. You do not have to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. I am here to help lighten the load and help you find that fire, that passion that led you to this work in the first place. There are community members that support you and need you, your family needs you, and your brothers and sisters in blue need you. Please don’t delay getting the help you need. Your life depends on it. I am a teletherapy provider in the state of New Jersey so we can talk from anywhere you are most comfortable.
Ana Pais, LPC, NCC, CFRC