The once-taboo subject of mental health is slowly seeing the light of day. More people are cognizant of the toll job stress takes on overall wellbeing. Managers, too are asking what they can do to minimize risk to officers who battle with shift work, gruesome crime scenes and financial struggles and go through the motions of daily life, most times, with a gun at their hip.
The Buffalo study
A few years back researchers conducted a major scientific study with Buffalo, New York Police Department which tested the association between the stress of being a police officer and psychological and health outcomes. The results of the Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police Stress (BCOPS) study were grim, clearly indicating that police work by itself can put officers at risk for adverse health outcomes.
“In our very early studies we found the average life expectancy of a police officer was 68 years compared to the general population, which at that time was around 76, so they’re losing a lot of years,” says John Violanti, research professor at the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University at Buffalo, New York. Violanti was a principal investigator on the study and also wrote the book ‘Dying for the Job: Police Work Exposure and Health’.
“We wrote the book with the intention that it would make officers more aware of the exposures they face at work; not only the danger of the job but the psychological and physical exposures that can results from being a police officer,” says Violanti.”
Through his research into the topic of police stress and illness, he was particularly surprised to find a clear association between stress and cancer—and the prevalence of cancer in police examples. “Looking at that, in my mind, it verified that…no one would ever think that because you’re under a lot of stress you’re more susceptible to cancer, but it seems that’s true in police work,” says Violanti.
More recent studies continue to evidence this dark correlation. One need not look far to see physical health and disease, and chronic stress, is taking its toll on men and women in public safety.
Should mental health be treated like physical health?
One suggestion is to head of disease and disability before it becomes an issue. Interestingly, many agencies don’t require physicals after an officer is out of the academy. But regular wellness checks may actually help to discover conditions like hypertension or obesity. Violanti suggests checking in with wellness physicals every three to four years to help officers stay in top physical shape.
But why stop there? Mental health checks might not be a bad idea, either. “Maybe not mandatory, but every year go and see and peer support person or counselor and have a mental health check like one would go to a dentist or doctor and talk about some of the things they experienced over the last year that may have bothered them,” says Violanti.
Mindfulness and meditation
Another way to temper stress is to cut out some of the noise in everyday life. Violanti recommends officers practice “mindfulness”—an idea that one should not wander in the past about traumas, stress and upsetting events. Something you might think, is easier said than done. The Marine Corp. has used this technique with great success. As part of an eight-week course of mindfulness the servicemen and women recovered more quickly from intense training sessions mimicking battlefield conditions when incorporating breathing and mediation practices. The positive effects were evident via physical markers and confirmed with brain scans.
“In law enforcement the term ‘meditation’ is like a four-letter word, so I prefer to refer to it as ‘quiet time,’” says John Marx, Executive Director at the Law Enforcement Survival Institute (LESI). Marx has a science background and began his career in municipal police departments and sheriff’s offices. Stress—or so he thought—what just part of the job, something he needed to figure out on his own.
“Because of the diversity of my career it seemed like I saw an awful lot of death and destruction because I was the PIO, because I was the detective, because I was on the SWAT team it seemed like I went to every bad thing that happened in our city,” he says.
By the time he retired at 45, Marx felt burnt out and tired. “I just wrote that off as being me, and not being tough enough to handle it,” he says.
A couple years after he retired Marx learned that a friend and colleague committed suicide. “He was the life of the party,” remembers Marx. “He did 14 years on the job and left to go into his family business, which was thriving... when he took his life it really caught everybody off guard.”
The experience was a wakeup call. “I realized that what I was experiencing wasn’t unique to me; but maybe a lot of people had experienced that.”
Tech tools created for the care-worn
There are more ways, too, that someone battling stress can tap into self-treatment through technology. One thing Violanti’s team is looking into is heart rate variability. The idea is, each person’s heart rate varies when he or she is under stress, and if someone’s heart rate does not vary appropriately in such situations, it can throw the body’s rhythm off balance and invite disease.
“Stress in law enforcement is a huge, huge problem,” says Dr. David Hagedorn, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Evoke Neuroscience. “People don’t understand stress; it affects the brain, it affects the heart, it affects the adrenal glands, it affects the pituitary gland.” He says key structures of the body are adversely affected in the presence of chronic stress. While you can’t totally take stress away from a police officer or first responder, you may be able to teach them how to control stress so they don’t acquire its long-term, damaging effects.
Evoke Neuroscience is working to provide solutions to help. Hagedorn says the idea is, “If you can measure it, you can change it”. Their Waveband, for example, a wristband that is comfortable to wear, is designed to quickly measure stress levels without complicated technology. Once a wearer can “see” their physiology in front of them, on a screen or wristband, they can “see” themselves making a change for the better. The Waveband II will be released this year and will not require the use of a tablet or iPhone. “We measure the brain and heart electrically but we put training tools in place so you can fix it,” says Hagedorn, who adds it makes a “world of difference” for sleep, headaches, irritability and obesity.
Evoke Wave, another tool from the company, consists of a headset that officers can use at home to help with heart and brain neurofeedback (also releasing this year).
A police officer’s brain processes information at a frantic rate. It is perhaps more vigilant because it’s adapted to a fast-paced, unpredictable job. “Just like PTSD is really an adaptation to a high stress, dangerous environment your brain adjusts to be protected. And that, over a long period of time, is damaging to the body,” says Hagedorn.
The company—which works extensively with the military—is now reaching out to public safety. Say Hagedorn, “We know what the problem is. They deal with depression, rage…they self-medicate with alcohol, and if we could teach them a safe alternative they wouldn’t need to do that. And they’re families will benefit…so will the department.”
It may not come as a surprise that apps are getting into the game, too. These “helps” may not be a bad place to start. Earlier this year Healthline.com released their list of ’18 Best Anxiety iPhone and Android Apps of 2014’, which included apps like Equanimity; a Mediation Timer & Tracker (helps “train” you to medicate and times sessions); Breathe2Relax (Guided breathing exercises and Qi Gong Medication Relaxation (offers videos by psychology Dr. Monica Frank); and Sleep Time, essentially an alarm clock that tells how quickly you fall asleep, when you enter each phase of sleep, and how efficient each sleep cycle is.
Support is key
Back in his days as a New York state trooper, John Violanti with Buffalo University, says no one talked about police suicide; no one wanted to talk about it because of the stigma attached with mental health and suicide. But now he says, “I think we’re finally at the point where we want to talk about suicide and mental health. And the new breed of leaders and police officers, I think, have a better understanding of this than we did in my day. So that’s a very good sign.”
Luckily, suicide and depression in the force are not the taboos they once were. Law enforcement’s “dirty little secret” is out. Such struggles need not be equated with weakness on the part of individual. It is in fact a very real (and common) reality. John Marx at LESI has even coined a term for police stress—“Blue Trauma Syndrome”—a spectrum of negative, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health effects manifested by a career in law enforcement. His blog at CopsAlive.com offers data, resources and discussions on the topic.
Marx agrees with Violanti that “it’s so much better than it used to be”. He feels, too, as a trainer, innovation in technology—such as products that monitor biofeedback—can be game changers. “I’m very optimistic. I do believe we have to armor individual officers with the kinds of tools, tech, and in many cases, simple ideology to change the way they prepare for this career so they don’t have to endure hidden dangers’.”
Marx recommends agencies build a network of family support that starts when someone gets hired, and follows them through the academy and the rest of their career—a place where spouses, loved ones and kids can connect with what goes on “at work”. This not unlike the popular ‘citizens academies’ that teach the public about what goes on behind-the-scenes. If you’re going to let citizens be privy to the nitty gritty behind-the-scenes, why not teach your family, too?
Violanti, who gives presentations to agencies throughout the U.S. and Canada on suicide, police health and PTSD, say “We want to get the word out that a police officer is a valuable person. [Suicide] is a tragic waste of life—and it’s a waste for the organization as well.
It’s important to train cadets how to shoot, defend themselves and drive. But at the same time it is unwise to neglect the psychological dangers of the job. It may be time to add things like in-service training to the curriculum of police academies and make sure conversations surrounding stress, depression and suicide are happening in squad rooms and living rooms, too.