From Cynicism to Depression

Cynicism has a shielding effect against disappointment and being taken in by those who would mean you harm. Take it too far, however, and any benefits reaped will be overshadowed by potential peril.


Let’s take a minute for a little free association.  What do the following phrases/situations bring to mind?

Boy Scout Troop Leader 

Disgruntled postal worker 

A priest counseling a troubled adolescent

Wow, aren’t you all a bunch of cynical…!

We have done a similar exercise during trainings and, every time, the uncomfortable laughter and comments start, especially when we bring up “Boy Scout Troop Leader.”  When we ask why the responses fall typically along the lines of, “Well, because we know what the world is really like…,” or “Just look at the news every night; you see what’s going on!  Those are just some of the more common a**holes out there!” 

So, let’s take our free association exercise a step further, shall we?  What do you think of when you read the following?

Domestic violence victim

Did you find your initial, visceral reaction to be one of empathy and triggering a protective instinct?  Or was it more cynical?

That law enforcement tends to breed cynicism among its practitioners is hardly breaking news; it’s a staple of what goes on and has gone on in departments across the world in reality, as well as in TV, movie, and literary fiction.  Frankly, it’s expected and, in a way, can be an important component of physical and emotional safety.  Take the example of the domestic violence victim; one of the most common crime victims police officers encounter, and one where they learn that, no matter what they do and how dedicated they are to helping, most will continue to be victims in some way or another until they make the choice to change.  And that change comes slowly, if at all.  The cynicism this breeds may actually help the officer keep perspective.  Good cops do their jobs to best of their ability, provide the victim with opportunity to help themselves, but without raising their expectations too high, and then leave the responsibility for whatever the victim decides to do firmly on the victim’s shoulders knowing there is a good chance all their efforts will be for naught; without a touch of cynicism, expectations will be dashed time and again until the officer burns out completely.

But even though a touch of cynicism is, arguably, good for officer survival – naiveté, by contrast, leaves a cop vulnerable to having the wool repeatedly pulled over his eyes, at best, or possibly being hurt or killed, at worst - taken too far, cynicism can become all-encompassing.  It creates distrust in everything and everyone, becoming no longer merely a prudent reality check but a poison.  Taken too far, a cop’s unrestrained cynicism breeds depression. 

Last month we looked at depression and some of the myths – and corresponding realities – surrounding it.  Depression is something cops are as susceptible to as anyone else; in fact, the very nature of their job and the cynicism it breeds may make them even more susceptible. 

But it does not have to be this way?

People work in many careers besides law enforcement that expose them to human suffering and the repetitive poor choices – as well as outright bad behavior - of those they serve and work for and with.   The stresses of these careers have the same potential to leave workers vulnerable to cynicism, burnout, and depression as the stresses of police work.  But is that potential realized as much as it is in police work?

That’s a difficult question to answer.  For starters, there is no really reliable way to empirically measure cynicism.  Although the existence and depth of depression is more easily determined, it relies a lot on open self-reporting and it’s not always easy to get the less-than-willing to self-disclose – especially if they’re already cynical about the motives of whoever is asking them about their depression.  Cynicism ultimately has to be “measured” by subjective observation and personal experience.  To that end, we ask you as those who work in and around law enforcement:  Is cynicism – and its byproduct of depression – an issue in the profession, at least for some?

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