When the going gets tough, the tough get going—and going, and going until, they snap. People who work in law enforcement must be tough to carry out and overcome the demands of their jobs; but no matter how tough they are, people in law enforcement suffer from stress. Unfortunately, toughness is an adaptation to this type of job, and toughness often acts as a barrier when it comes for the “ tough” to seek help for themselves.
Law Enforcement Officers and Stress
Police officers give help but never ask for it; it is seen as a sign of “ weakness.” They prefer self-help, and have adopted a number of mechanisms to adapt to the high levels of stress inherent in their profession. Law enforcement officers tend to adopt a defensive attitude, repress their feelings, and keep to themselves. They become unapproachable and are difficult to reach, which accounts in part for the high rate of suicide amongst police officers.
The stress is chronic and comes from many fronts. Law enforcement officers have to deal with the most brutal and violent members of society, to protect an indifferent public. Often, they are the victims of violence themselves. They come in daily contact with the worse of humanity.
Management of Stress
There are many programs and intervention strategies to manage stress in law enforcement officers. One of the best is Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD), which provides “ emotional processing of traumatic events through the ventilation and normalization of reactions;” in other words, officers undergo mandatory therapy soon after traumatic events.
The CISD is a very formal process and follows a strict protocol. All officers are trained on the CISD guidelines and approach. It includes seven steps or phases: (1) Fact Phase, where the officers describe what happened; (2) Thought Phase, where the officers describe how they felt during the incident; (3) Reaction Phase, where the officers identify the most stressful element of the incident; (4) Symptom Phase, where the officers are asked to describe any physical, or emotional symptoms, or any changes in their behavior that may be connected to the trauma; and (5) Re-entry Phase, where the officers re-evaluate the situation and discuss how they would deal with the situation, were it ever to happen again.
However, although CISD has been shown to be a very effective method in the prevention of clinical stress, there remains a great deal of stigma attached to it—the “ tough” don’t need it. One approach to solving this problem is for police departments to follow the steps of the CSID through more informal channels; for example, law enforcement officers have no problems with “ debriefings.” A good debriefing model would incorporate an emotional component along with the standard cognitive component. Venting has been identified as critical for the resolution of stress, especially in law enforcement officers who tend to guard their feelings. The process should be open-ended and guided by clinical judgment and common sense.
Law Enforcement and Mental Health Services
Police officers stay away from mental health services; they hate the very concept, find the jargon silly, fear being “ shrunk” or stigmatized, and find it a waste of time and money. And, the “ tough” heal themselves.
There are also a number of administrative issues that foil the process; most rooted on budgetary concerns. What administrators fail to realize is that clinical stress can lead to the permanent loss of a police officer, who must be replaced at a much greater cost than a few therapy sessions. Thus, to prevent stress from becoming an issue, psychotherapy should become routine and mandatory for law enforcement officers.