By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University
Stress in policing is a real problem. Continued exposure to traumatic incidents, such as dealing with loss of life and experiencing life-threatening incidents, contributes to high levels of psychological stress for officers, which can result in mental and physical health problems. As a result, officers must better understand how to mitigate and manage stress before it has an adverse impact on them.
The Impacts of Stress on Officers
The strain placed on officers throughout their career is not necessarily caused by one incident or traumatic event. Instead, strain that leads to stress occurs through years of traumatic incidents and stressful experiences, which accumulate and often lead to psychological and physical health problems. For example, officers have a higher rate of health problems such as cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease related to police stress is 1.7 times more prevalent than found in the general population.
An officer's mental health can also be affected by stress. The psychological toll from experiencing ongoing trauma can lead to depression, anxiety and even suicide. For example, suicides are responsible for 13.8 percent of police officer deaths, in comparison to only 3 percent in all other occupations combined.
The toll from a career in policing doesn't end when an officer hands in their badge. Research has revealed that the death of retired police officers occurs at a younger age than other retired, civilian employees.
These physical and mental problems are often attributed to the ongoing trauma officers' experience throughout their careers. Compared to civilians and even other first responders, officers are exposed to an elevated level of stress due to the responsibility of obtaining photographs of crime scenes, supporting victims, and conducting investigations in high-stress environments. Use-of-force situations, making arrests, and internal politics are also sources of stress for police officers.
If stress is not managed correctly, strain associated with stress can result in anger, negative reactions, and even violence. However, the effects of police strain can be mitigated if progressive steps are made to address police stress during the time it occurs in the lives of officers.
The Value of Peer Support Following a Critical Incident
An effective way for officers to deal with stress is through the support of other officers. Generally, police officers are hesitant to use outside counseling services following a traumatic event. However, they are more likely to communicate with their peers about the incident. Therefore, it is important for agencies to have strong, formal peer-support programs in place. During peer-support sessions, officers should be encouraged to discuss their role in the incident. In return, peer support officers should give supportive feedback that provides reassurances to the officer about their decisions. In addition to helping an officer process an event, peer communication is also an opportunity for a trained peer-support officer to identify whether an officer is struggling in a way that may require further intervention, either through time off or professional counseling.
Having access to peer support is an essential stress management strategy that gives officers the opportunity to reflect upon the incident and share their emotions with other officers who have experienced similar trauma. Such measures can both reduce the effect of strain over time as well as promote resiliency in the lives of officers.
In addition to informal peer-support meetings, an agency should establish a Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) program. CISM is an intervention protocol that is a formal and highly structured program that provides officers with an understanding of stress reactions, their emotions, and commonly offers further referral if help is needed.
Peer support plays a different role following a traumatic incident because it provides a less structured approach and focuses on officers supporting one another through communication. Peer support allows officers to share their emotions and experience with other officers who have gone through similar traumatic events.
In conclusion, it is important to recognize that stress can have serious adverse effects on police officers when it is not properly managed. Often, unresolved stressful encounters can result in strain over time, which can contribute to psychological and health problems. However, by diffusing stress immediately after an incident through peer-support measures, an officer can start the process of identifying the strain and ensuring it doesn't overwhelm them.