Policing in 2021
Policing has always been stressful, but the current political climate has only made it worse. Officers still have to worry about being killed or injured on the job, but now they also have to worry about job security, unfair public scrutiny, and the effects their work might have on their families. They wonder if they will lose their freedom simply for going to work and doing what they were trained to do. This type of stress isn’t sustainable, especially since officers are still expected to do the same work they’ve always done. To successfully navigate the cultural changes we are all living through, officers need additional support and resources.
I’ve worked alongside officers for almost 20 years—first, as a fellow officer, now as an retired officer and a therapist. The vast majority of officers I know are good, hard-working people. They are selfless, caring, compassionate, and want to help their fellow citizens. It’s broken my heart to see everyone in this field maligned for the actions of a few. There have always been bad officers, but now, many people see all officers as bad officers. We are the enemy.
The Consequences of Relentless Stress
This is causing a new kind of trauma for officers. It’s a mid-to-low-level stress that is relentless and never-ending. Thoughts about the potential consequences of police work are always in the back of an officer’s mind, and sometimes at the forefront, depending on what they confront at work that day. Some question and doubt themselves, while others feel attacked and defensive. In either case, it adds to the stress-related symptoms officers experience, which can include:
- Muscle tension
- Fatigue and burnout
- Too much or too little sleep
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Stomach issues or trouble eating
- Anger, frustration, or irritability
- Rumination, negative thoughts, or worry
- Lack of motivation or difficulty concentrating
These are just a few ways excessive worry and stress can manifest in officers’ lives. In response, many are looking at other careers or trying to find other ways to “escape” the field. In the meantime, they are also reaching for coping mechanisms, many of which are negative and make things worse.
Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms and the Damage They Do
Many stressed-out officers engage in poor decision making. They get overwhelmed and act on impulse, focusing only on changing how they feel in the moment. They accept temporary relief without seeing the larger pattern of unsustainable stress they need to address. They don’t see how the things they’re doing to feel better are actually making them feel worse. Later, they regret their choices, but at that point, the damage has been done.
Many officers use alcohol to cope. It’s readily accessible and socially accepted, so it can seem like no big deal to have a drink when they get home to relax. But drinking can lead to serious long-term problems, especially when officers use it to avoid dealing with deeper issues in their lives.
Alcohol calms the central nervous system, increases dopamine, and makes good feelings happen fast. This can be hard to resist when good feelings are hard to come by. But then the bad feelings come back, even worse than they were before, and just a little is rarely enough to keep them at bay. One of the things that makes alcohol dangerous is the way it loses its effect over time. Many officers steadily increase the amount they drink over time and develop alcohol use disorders.
Some officers turn to sex for relief. This can be a healthy outlet, but it’s hard to have healthy boundaries with sex when you’re trying to use it as a coping tool to manage unsustainable levels of stress. Officers who act out sexually can escalate their behavior in the same way as with alcohol, building up a tolerance and needing more intense interactions to get the same effect. Some engage in inappropriate conversations or actions that put their jobs at risk. Some develop sexual addictions, seeking excessive partners or using pornography as an outlet. Others who were happily married jeopardize or lose their marriages through infidelity.
Some officers do the opposite, rejecting or avoiding closeness and pushing others away. A common issue many officers have is taking their work stress home and picking fights or being short with family and loved ones. Chronic conflicts with partners and families can result in lost marriages and strained relationships with children. Officers who don’t already have families can become dangerously isolated from support, withdrawing further into bad habits and addictions.
In addition to substances and sex, officers can find solace in the dopamine rush of gambling, compulsive spending or shopping, or even day trading in the stock market. Used in excess, these outlets can lead to money problems or even financial ruin.
Finding Healthier Ways to Cope
These negative coping skills are an easy distraction from the daily stressors and emotions officers experience. Unfortunately, they often become greater sources of stress than the stress they were meant to address. But some officers find their way out of this unhealthy pattern by finding healthier ways to cope.
Exercise and getting outside, especially going for hikes in nature away from the places where they work, can help officers reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. It also helps them increase their physical health. Another benefit is that it can help them break free from overidentification with their work and the controversy associated with it. Meaningful hobbies can help officers feel good about themselves—and good in general. Some find joy or solace through creative outlets like making art, cooking, or playing the guitar.
Others take up practices like meditation or mindfulness. They learn to live in the present moment and focus on the here and now. They spend more time with family and friends. They also find a good therapist to work with—hopefully before they begin making bad decisions, but therapy can also help untangle the knots of bad habits once they’ve begun.
The Value of Therapy for First Responders
The stigma of mental health is real, but it’s bullshit. There is nothing wrong with speaking to someone about what you’re going through. It’s something every officer can benefit from. It’s a simple thing we can do that works. It helps us get to the deeper issues in our lives and sort them out. It doesn’t have escalating negative consequences like our bad habits do. And the more we seek it out, the stronger we’ll become and the more we’ll overcome the stigma. As a matter of fact, more officers and first responders are seeking help now than they ever have.
It’s important to know that your department or employer can’t get any information from an outside therapist. It’s protected by HIPAA. Therapists can’t tell them anything without losing their license and their jobs. This was affirmed in the important Jaffee v. Redmond ruling, which clearly established psychotherapist-patient privilege for officers and other professionals.
You don’t have to go it alone. Here at First Line Counseling, our staff is trained and experienced in working with law enforcement officers and other first responders. We’ve been there and we know the difficulties you face daily, even hourly. Whether you want to stay in the profession or want to leave, we can help. We’ve worked with hundreds of officers and other first responders.
When you come to us, you don’t have to worry about being judged. We know and respect what you do and what it means to be a first responder. We know how the stress can get to you and how hard it can be to find healthy ways to cope. We know what it means to care enough to try to make things better in your life. We care about our fellow officers and first responders and want to help them live better, happier lives. We can help, and we’re glad to see you.
We have experience treating substance abuse issues, behavioral and other addictions, anxiety, depression, and trauma. We are skilled in providing critical incident stress management and debriefings after critical incidents such as shooting, in-custody deaths, and traumatic calls. We help officers overcome their difficulties and become better officers, people, and family members. If you’re an officer who needs help coping with stress, overcoming bad habits, or fixing the problems stress has caused in your life, trust us—you’ve found the right place.