By Angela L. Swain
Keeping the community safe is no easy task. It requires a lot of dedication and commitment on the part of police officers, who are willing to go that extra mile for their job.
Working as a police officer isn’t easy, especially in today’s world, where law enforcement is under intense scrutiny. Numerous stressors come with this job, including danger, public scrutiny, shifts, and high-intensity situations. All these factors can take their toll on even the most resilient individual.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), law enforcement officers face several stressors daily. Those include dealing with criminals and the possibility of being assaulted or injured, working long shifts, and interacting with people who are sometimes hostile. The BLS also notes that law enforcement officers must be able to make quick decisions in high-stress situations.
During a wellness workshop at the University of California, San Francisco Police Department, I met with police officers and had the pleasure of giving a talk on “Navigating Change Through Collaborative Leadership.” We discussed stress, and it was difficult for them to share their stressors due to fear of retaliation from their bosses and the grief and trauma they face daily.
The more I learned about what it’s like to be a police officer, the more I understood that dealing with trauma is similar to playing a game of Jenga—once you pull out one block, everything starts falling apart. If they had dug a little deeper, the officers would have experienced feelings they didn’t know existed. Once those feelings surfaced, though—once their true emotions came to light—they wouldn’t know what to do about them.
That’s why, for police officers, it’s hard to discuss what they experience because they don’t have an organizational culture that encourages being vulnerable— often perceived as weak. What we need to understand is that being vulnerable is not a weakness. It’s a sign of strength, but police officers are trained to be “bulletproof”—they must remain stoic and unaffected by whatever they encounter. A study on Prevalence of Mental Illness and Mental Health Care Use Among Police Officers found that only 12% of police officers are “open” about struggling with mental health issues.
It doesn’t help that if a police officer is perceived as weak on the streets, it can cost them their life. It makes sense, then, that police officers would be hesitant to be vulnerable in public. Therefore, we need to assist them in dealing with workplace trauma and prevent them from developing long-term mental health issues such as PTSD or depression. In that case, we must find ways for them to open up about their experiences.
Additionally, suppose an officer goes for help. In that case, they may fear losing their job because they may be viewed as “unstable,” which can put their employment status at risk and impact their livelihood. The problem is that we need to create better, safe spaces for police officers to talk about their experiences. Many think police officers are immune to trauma or don’t experience it. This misconception can make it even harder for them to open up about what they’ve seen and experienced on the job because they may feel judged by others who don’t understand the realities of their line of work.
This is why we need better dialogue around policing and mental health. So we can start discussing these issues in ways that allow us to create more space for officers who need help but may not feel comfortable seeking it out. When we talk about police officers and mental health, we need to do so in a way that doesn’t assume they don’t suffer from trauma or other stressors. We also need to think about how we can create safe spaces for them to discuss their experiences with peers who understand what they go through every day.
As an organizational psychologist and change management strategist, I have encountered many instances where the organization failed to help its employees cope with stress and trauma. In fact, in some cases, the organizational culture contributed to the pressures experienced by its staff members. In my experience, three key elements contribute to the creation of a safe space for employees:
Employees can feel as though they have some control over their work environment and professional development. This is often referred to as “psychological safety” in organizational psychology literature.
Employees can feel as though their organization and its leadership support them. This can take many forms, such as professional development opportunities, mentorship programs, employee support groups, and so on.
This depends on employees’ perceptions of their organization’s leadership being honest, transparent, and authentic with them. This can be difficult in many organizations as competing interests are often at play. For example, an organization may want to promote a specific product or service, but employees may have concerns about the ethics of doing so.
With this three-pronged approach, law enforcement agencies will create a safer environment for their officers and reduce the number of officers who struggle with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. This will be a challenge as it will also mean changing the organizational culture within police departments so that it no longer stigmatizes mental illness. However, ultimately the benefits of creating an empowering and supportive environment for officers should outweigh the costs.
As a nation, we must also consider how we can make the mental health treatment system more accessible to police officers and their families. In particular, we need to address the stigma associated with seeking professional help for psychological issues and reduce the barriers to accessing these services.
Several states, including Florida and California, have passed laws protecting officers from discrimination based on their mental health. These laws are an excellent first step in encouraging officers to seek help for psychological issues. However, more must be done to ensure officers have access to affordable mental health care and trauma support services throughout their careers and after they leave law enforcement.