The truth about law enforcement mental health
By Louise Pyers

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As a mental health practitioner who has worked with police for the past 14 years, I was bothered by a recent headline in LA Weekly: Police 'Psychotic Disorder' Hits Some Young Cops Who've Experienced Trauma, Study Says. I was interested to hear more since police pre-employment screenings include testing for psychosis, usually weeding out those with psychotic disorders. As I continued to read, and after reading the study itself, which was published in the Journal of Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, I began to realize that the author of the blog was using misleading and incorrect terminology.

Should public safety agencies provide more support for mental health?
  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No

To clarify, the journal article indicates police and other first responders are susceptible to mood and substance-use disorders, not psychotic disorders. And those mood disorders are directly related to on-the-job exposure to traumatic and other stressful events.

Police and other first responders have the potential to be exposed to traumatic events much more often than those in civilian life. No one is immune to the symptoms that can occur after a traumatic event. Some of these events would test the coping mechanisms of anyone — such as taking a dead baby out of a car, multiple fatalities, etc. The symptoms are a normal response to an abnormal event.

Most public safety personnel are very resilient in the face of the constant onslaught of stress that can accumulate over the years. Everyone, whether you are in the field of public safety or not, will have a physiological response to traumatic events. Some personnel, just like civilians, can have a hard time coping and may need help. They may self-medicate in attempts to feel better and may suffer from depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. However, mood disorders are very different from psychotic disorders. A person experiencing psychosis has lost touch with reality. A person with a mood or substance-use disorder is very much based in reality, but his or her coping mechanisms are stretched to the limit and may need extra support.

It is not unusual that the journal study suggests "developing curricula in coping skills and providing timely interventions for early career protective services workers may help reduce future psychiatric morbidity in these workers." It is important for those new to the job to receive as much education and support as possible early in their careers. However, training curricula on police stress and healthy coping should be introduced at the academy level and continue through out an officer's career.

Those in protective services should also be encouraged to seek mental health counseling at least once a year, just as one usually gets a yearly physical. While the journal study showed younger personnel were more susceptible to mood and substance-use disorders, early results from a 2012 National Surveillance of Police Suicide Study conducted by Andrew F. O'Hara, Badge of Life; and John Violanti, Ph.D.; indicates the average age for suicide in law enforcement for 2012 was around 42 years with 15-19 years on the job. Mental health education and support should span from the first day on the job through retirement.

Another important tool for law enforcement agencies to consider is the importance of a strong peer-support program. While officers may be reluctant to seek help on their own, a peer's intervention and encouragement to seek help can mean the difference between life and death. A well-trained "peer support" officer can act as that crucial bridge to help when it is most needed.

Louise Pyers, M.S., is executive director and founder of the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement (CABLE), Inc., a nonprofit research and training collaborative dedicated to the safety and well-being of those in law enforcement and the communities they serve.