Cops Under the Specter of PTSD
Among the tragic after-effects of the anti-police movement is an increase in PTSD in police officers. The number of Minnesota police officers applying for PTSD disability had tripled over the past fiscal year. Observers will cite changes in the state’s laws as a cause, but there can be no denying that hostile working conditions are a major ingredient.
The typical understanding of post traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD, is that it derives from a single overwhelming event. The diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals to diagnose PTSD requires some kind of exposure to trauma (an event that shakes one’s sense of order, identity, or personal safety), intrusive symptoms such as nightmares and flashbacks, avoidance behavior, negative thinking or moods, and heightened arousal. This is a simplified description with many additional factors.
Traumatic events touch the lives of 50%-85% of Americans in their lifetime. Some will experience multiple traumatic events, whether being the victim of a violent crime, a car crash, or natural disaster. Ninety percent of police officers report trauma exposure and witness or are directly involved in multiple traumatic events over their career, and often within any given shift.
Among the effects of PTSD, including lesser stress-induced diagnoses, are impaired cognitive function, suicidal thoughts, and declining health. If these untreated and unmanaged symptoms are left to the officer alone, their ability to perform can become so impaired that they must leave their jobs.
It is important to fully understand that PTSD is not merely an emotional state. Words that describe emotion are usually part of how we discuss the issue, but the basis of this injury is a real as a visible injury. In simple terms, when the body experiences, through its senses, a life-threatening event, there are neurological and physiological changes that occur. In normal threats to our safety, we experience blood chemistry changes that are often expressed as the fight or flight response. The way our body operates under stress moves away from our normal state and prepares us for battle. The way we breathe, the way the body uses nutrition, and the way our blood circulates shift into high gear that is sustainable only for a little window of time for us to deal with the threat. It takes time for the body to re-set itself and return to normal.
Some threats are so intense that the danger-sensing part of the brain can’t forget. It says to the body “I’ll never let this happen to you again!” and keeps up the emergency mode that the brain and the rest of the body cannot sustain over time. It’s like a car with a stuck accelerator. Of course, not everyone experiencing trauma, or even repeated trauma, will develop PTSD. Research is ongoing to determine why several persons can survive the same trauma and respond differently.
A partial answer to that is what kind of support an individual gets before, during, and after the trauma. Police leaders bear a responsibility to educate themselves and their officers on stress symptoms and strategies. With cumulative stress, the symptoms may appear slowly and escape notice until severe. Many police agencies have a debriefing protocol after high-profile events but many others do not. Most have the availability of employee assistance programs, but these are often not trusted by officers who fear a lack of confidentiality could subject them to mistrust by peers and potential loss of promotion and special assignments. Leaders must understand the barriers to mental health support which may include their own attitude. Positive affirmation of mental health care is important for ongoing support.
In Minnesota, particularly the Minneapolis area, the mixed messages from political leaders about the value of police officers, the constant barrage of criticism, and the growing resistance to routine police contacts are enemies of police officers’ health and ability to continue to serve well long term. Personnel shortages, shift changes, and long overtime hours have created not only a gap in the safety of Minneapolis citizens but to the health and productivity of its police officers.
Respect and trust of our first responders are still high across the country but often overshadowed by the loud voices of critics. Support for police officers is not a mere sentiment, it is a necessary component of public safety and high performance of law enforcement officers.