Of course, not everyone who suffers from a depressive disorder is going to kill themselves, or even contemplate suicide, but in a pilot study on the effects of stress on police officers, John Violanti, Ph.D, a University of Buffalo research professor (and retired 23 year veteran of the New York State Police) noted significant physical and emotional effects believed related to the stressors of police work, including increased blood pressure, sleep disorders, more destructive stress hormones, PTSD, heart problems and, yes, greater suicidal ideation among LEOs than among the general population (psychcentral.com/news/2008/09/29, Nauert, Rick, Ph.D. and Violanti, John, Ph.D, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, October 2008). High stress levels are also linked to increased family and interpersonal dysfunction, alcohol abuse, decreased job satisfaction, and poor self-care. Look around your department. Does that resemble anyone you know?
While stress does not affect everyone the same, and there is no guarantee someone under high stress will develop depression - some people are truly better and happier in a pressure cooker - it is a pretty good predictor. While we cannot say with certainty that there is a greater rate of depression in the law enforcement world, what depression there is has far-reaching, and often tragic, consequences.
Depression and the Police Reality
So, if the depression rate among police officers may be higher than that of the general public, and the suicide rate definitely is, then what is it about policing that makes it so emotionally hazardous? Police officers are carefully screened for physical, mental, and emotional fitness before hire, after all, so what are the sources of police depression?
First, some people simply develop depressive disorders in the course of their lifetime and cops are no different. Of those people, some will have severe depression and will contemplate or attempt suicide. Again, cops are no different. There may not be a higher rate of depression among police but when cops decide to kill themselves they are more decisive and effective - those hired as LEOs are screened for and selected in part because of their decisiveness, and they have greater access to firearms than most people - resulting in more completed suicides. But then, maybe that is exactly what it means. Maybe there is something about law enforcement, or the people who enter it, that has a greater propensity toward depressive disorders.
The lifestyle associated with law enforcement - shift work, long hours, working weekends and holidays, unpredictability - impacts family and social life, often leading to isolation and loneliness. It lends itself to poor sleeping and eating habits, increased stress, and physical changes, all of which can upset the delicate balance that regulates mental health. There is a growing body of research that seems to show the law enforcement lifestyle can be detrimental on many levels.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is something all in law enforcement have heard of but few would admit to having. Most people think of PTSD as stemming out of a single, overwhelming traumatic event. For some that may be true, but for others PTSD may result from cumulative events witnessed or experienced over time, something likely to happen to many most cops over a career. Not all will develop PTSD, of course, but some will and for them depression will surely be a component.
For others, the problem may not be a genetic predisposition, lifestyle issue, or a reaction to trauma, but instead a normal reaction to low morale. Is it any secret that many police departments suffer from morale problems? We know, we are just being silly. Ask any police chief where 89% of his force claims low morale and he will point out that those 89% are just isolated malcontents. Just the same, low morale at work can easily infect emotional wellness in other aspects of life.
Finally, there is the compounding effect of the fear associated with even mentioning that things are not going so well emotionally. A great many police officers believe, often with good reason, that mentioning they are depressed, stressed or burned out, or in need of help, that their bosses and colleagues will judge them. They fear limitations on or the loss of their job, or that they will lose their gun. And they worry that, even if they try to seek help in confidence, they will be found out. The fear compounds the depression.
As law enforcement officers you have to take steps to ensure your physical health on the street. What steps can you take to ensure your mental health, when you need to, without compromising your professional self? Tragically, far too many LEOs are lost every year to the biggest cop killer of all. Next month, we are going to address how and when to seek help, and how to protect yourself professionally as you do.