Many things about being a law enforcement officer separate the individual from the general public. One concern is the affect the job has on the officer's psychological well-being. Although agencies are doing more to combat the reactions officer's naturally have to trauma, family members must be educated. Definitions of stress reactions and the mental disorders that occur from them must be in every family's arsenal. Too many times, loved ones realize too late their officer was suffering. These families possibly could have helped if they knew what to look for, had established a prevention system and knew where to turn for help. Knowledge is key in situations which involve the circumstances that face every officer during their career.
Stress is any situation or thought that makes a person feel frustrated, angry or anxious. Many daily life events induce stress reactions and no one has the same triggers. One person might be completely overwhelmed if their car breaks down while another might not feel any reaction at all. Each officer is different as well. Anxiety is the feeling of apprehension or fear. It is just a feeling. That doesn't lessen its impact on the person, but it helps to place this definition in your mind to help combat the seeming physical reaction to the feeling.
When officers experience a traumatic situation, such as a shooting, homicide or death of a child, they are often affected mentally. Experiencing a significant stress reaction after a traumatic event defines traumatic stress, commonly known as critical incident stress (CIS). Thankfully, many agencies recognize the impact of CIS and have taken steps to reduce it by holding briefings. These briefings usually entail a factual presentation of the event, allows officers (and often their families if invited) to express their experience of what happened and their feelings toward it and gives information about what to expect emotionally in the next few days and months. These briefings are extremely helpful and should be part of every agencies wellness program.
During the days and months following a traumatic event, an officer and his/her family must be cognizant of the issues which might come up. During this time, the officer is at risk of developing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This disorder is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and defined in their manual, the DSM-IV, as experiencing a traumatic event which involved actual or threatened death or serious injury and the person's response involved intense fear, helplessness or horror AND the traumatic even is persistently re-experienced in several ways. These ways are explained in the manual.
One thing officers and families must keep in mind is the traumatic situation could be a one time event or it could be a series of lesser traumatic events. Many officers are exposed to horrific situations repeatedly. These add up and PTSD can be caused by an accumulation of events. Because of this, every loved one should be aware of the signs their officer might be having a stress reaction regardless of whether anything "Big" has happened.
Because research has improved significantly over the years, professionals recommend steps prior to a traumatic event. Allen R. Kates, author of CopShock: Surviving Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) recommends two important things. First, establish a support system. "A support system is a network of people whom officers in crisis can turn to," Kates writes. "It's a game plan for reducing stress." These people include family members, civilian and sworn friends, peer counselors and therapists and clergy. As loved ones, you can make sure your officer has this support system in place and that they are aware of it. Communicating about stress and its affect prior to an event will encourage communication if your officer begins to feel a psychological reaction.
Kates' second recommendation is to have a stress management plan. "A plan may include routines such as exercise and relaxation procedures like deep breathing and yoga," he says. "If officers use these resources regularly, suddenly employing them will not be a hardship when circumstances are already distressing." Ellen Kirschman, Ph.D., has several wonderful recommendations for prevention in her essential book I Love a Cop.
Signs of Traumatic Stress
If an officer has a traumatic experience, their fear, helplessness or horror reaction might not be apparent. After all, officers at the scene of a traumatic event have been trained to mute their reactions. There are signs too to tell if an officer is suffering from traumatic stress. Kates outlines four types of signs, including emotional (denial, fear, depression, grief, anxiety, anger, aggression and thoughts of suicide), physical (chest pain, dizziness, sweating, high blood pressure, sleep disturbance and fatigue), cognitive (confusion, blaming others, trouble making decisions and flashbacks of the event) and behavioral (angry outbursts, withdrawal, increased consumption of alcohol, tobacco, drugs or food, gambling, promiscuity and changes in work habit). This is the bodies normal reaction to an abnormal event. It is not a mental or physical weakness. The sooner the officer and his loved ones understand this, the sooner the officer can seek the help they need to be healthy.
Dealing with Stress
Before stress reactions become a disorder, there are many things a family can do. Hopefully a support system and stress management plan are already in place. This will help exponentially. Next, an officer, and his/her family, should get help. Attend CIS debriefings and support groups, seek therapy with a qualified mental health professional and most important do not suppress emotions. Family members encourage your officer to talk and to express their feelings in an appropriate manner. Kates has several recommendations about what behaviors family members and friends should accept. He also points out things family members should not accept. These include any form of abuse, acting out in self-destructive ways such as excessive drinking, drugging or committing violence. If one is available, family members should take a course in crisis management. Many agencies and unions offer them. Also, remember to look after yourself. Do not internalize your officer's emotional reactions. Seek help for yourself with friends, therapists or a support group. Journaling is also a great way to reduce your own stress.
Officers deal with traumatic situations too many times during their career. They are surrounded by negativity, both out on the street and at the station. Often events add up, or a particularly horrendous event occurs, and an officer experiences a stress reaction to it. Without understanding and coping mechanisms, the officer can suffer debilitating consequences. As a family member, knowing what to look for, assisting in establishing preventative measures and assisting in dealing with stress can help make your officer's career a long and healthy one.