Many would argue that stress is a natural part of the law enforcement career field and that managing that stress is imperative for good physical, emotional and mental health. Such need for training is so obvious that most (if not all) police academies have academic courses specifically dedicated to teaching stress management techniques. Sadly, that training—all too often—is just a minor effort to acknowledge the mandate for such and doesn’t truly provide the knowledge required for an officer to get through a more than 20 year career without being negatively impacted by the stress of the job. Thankfully, across the span of the past two or three decades, the focus on stress, its impact and the need for increased stress management techniques and training has grown appreciably.
The necessity to recognize
Stress is a reality in everyday life. It’s as much a reality for law enforcement as it is for firefighters (although we hate to admit it), teachers, students, moms, dads, priests, baristas and everyone else. Life itself is a collection of experiences and circumstances that can either increase or decrease the level of stress we feel. Due to the frequent negative circumstances law enforcement has to deal with by virtue of the nature of the job, stress can build up faster than we can manage it. That buildup of stress can have a toxic effect on our health. Ultimately, and unfortunately, it can reach a point where an officer can’t manage it any longer and commits suicide. Thankfully, if recent data is a reliable indicator, we’re doing a better job of managing stress and helping officers learn the skills necessary to better manage it through their careers.
In her article “Police Suicides in 2016”, Pamela Kulbarsh—a long time trauma nurse and contributor—cites a reported 108 law enforcement suicides in 2016. That’s down 14 percent from the 126 reported in 2012 which was also down from the 143 reported in 2009. While this trend is promising, the law enforcement community must not become complacent about the topic of stress and stress management. That 108 law enforcement suicides in 2016 represents more law enforcement deaths than those caused by gunfire and traffic accidents combined and averages out to one suicide every three days. The community has to continue its efforts to do better.
Given that it’s impossible to change the nature of the job (until we learn how to change the nature of people), the focus for stress management isn’t reducing stress on the job, but managing that stress until it can be reduced during off duty hours. There are a plethora of theories about the best way to manage and reduce stress, but there are several techniques agreed upon by most psychologists, psychiatrists, law enforcement trainers, veterans and those whom we refer to as stress coaches.
The first and largest challenge faced with stress management is the simple recognition of stress impact. Many officers view it as a sign of weakness to even admit to trauma or stress.
While many public safety professionals have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress challenges, such diagnosis is often viewed as a sign of weakness or vulnerability; conditions that are unacceptable for those on the street who have to remain invincible and unbeatable.
Therefore, one of the biggest challenges faced in stress management is getting officers to realize that identifying stressors and admitting stress in their lives is not a sign of weakness, but indeed the first step toward reducing the negative impact of stress in not only their day-to-day lives but throughout their career and beyond. Once officers have admitted the causality of stress and its on-going existence, they can then begin to make earnest efforts to reduce its impact on their mental, emotional and physical health.
Addressing and techniques
One of the oldest recognized stress management techniques is increased physical fitness. By that we don’t mean simply lifting weights or dedicating oneself to hours of cardio. “Physical fitness” encompasses a way of life that includes everything from eating healthy(ier) to regular exercise to structured relaxation and more. While the old school “taking some time to unwind,” might always mean choir practice, in today’s world it can mean a half hour of meditation or a yoga class. A healthier body is more capable of absorbing, mitigating and recovering from the stressors of the job. Maintaining that healthy body means eating clean and having an exercise regimen that includes strength, cardio and flexibility workouts. The goal is to keep your blood pressure and resting pulse rate within “normal” parameters without the need for medication (prescribed or imbibed). To measure the success of such a program requires the officer not only to perform the health regimen with a high level of dedication, but also to monitor the results. Unfortunately, most people without blood pressure problems never think about buying a home blood pressure cuff to regularly check their blood pressure. People without heart problems rarely think about the need to check their resting pulse rate. These monitoring steps are necessary and a part of identifying potential toxic stress indicators before it becomes difficult to manage. Having an annual physical checkup including blood work is also important to maintaining an overall healthy system.
Perhaps the second oldest recognized stress management technique is talking with someone who can relate to the challenge and who offers both understanding as well as advice on how to manage what you’re feeling/experiencing. Unfortunately, a visit to the agency psychologist brings with it the fear of attached stigma (should any of your workmates find out) and the fear of administrative repercussion because the agency shrink reports up the chain of command. It’s a shame that doctor/patient privilege doesn’t apply to agency psychologists.
The fear of the potential negatives resulting from seeing an agency psychologist has been cited as a reason why some officers don’t seek help when they desperately need it. In answer to that problem, several services have arisen that offer training in “stress coaching.” These coaches are NOT licensed psychologists and have no legal mandate to report to the agency. Of course, morals and ethics require them to report certain situations, but in general they are free to focus on the needs of the officer in front of them; the needs of that officer to manage and reduce his/her stress before it becomes intolerable.
While some bemoan the existence of unlicensed counselors specifically due to their lack of formal certification, the pros of having them available can’t be denied. The training as a stress coach includes information on identifying risk factors and awareness of other services that may be necessary. The reality is that officers are far more likely to seek conversation from another officer on their agency or an allied agency than they are from a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist. That fear of up-the-chain reporting, potential loss of credentials (however temporary it may be) and the stigma attached to any type of stress-related diagnosis remains a critical challenge to overcome.
The first and second most recognized and commonly recommended stress management techniques above sometimes don’t hold a candle to the third: a good support system. A good support system includes an officer’s family and friends, coworkers, religious leaders and more. Anyone in that officer’s day-to-day life that offers them a positive interaction, emotional support and motivational guidance as they deal with “the job” is a part of their support system.
These necessary people can also cause us stress but it’s usually non-work related stress. It helps to recognize that those people who sometimes cause stress more often than not help you to reduce work stress and manage what you can’t eliminate.
In an ideal world, the officer is healthy and has great communication skills that allow them to communicate any stress challenges to a fantastic coach who offers sound advice. The officer goes home to a supportive family or spends time with a similarly supportive group of friends outside of work. In that ideal world, stress from “the job” rarely becomes a challenge and never becomes overwhelming. Together, our law enforcement community continues to work towards that goal—as well we should.
Editor’s Note: Pamela Kulbarsh’s article “Police Suicides in 2016” can be found at Officer.com/12293261.