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Police Stress: The Effects of Police PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) on police wives and family members

by Hal Brown, LICSW
Police Therapist


An officer develops police PTSD* after experiencing an critical incident. Perhaps someone shot him (or as always, her), or maybe he had to kill someone himself. Or perhaps both. Every critical incident has similarities, and every one is different. And every officer's reaction is individual to them as well. Some officers go through the process of integrating the experience into their psyche without difficulty. Usually this is with the help of others. It is difficult, perhaps not impossible, but difficult to do it alone.

But even if the critical incident stress management team made every effort to debrief the officer, individual differences may mean that issues weren't entirely resolved. Or, it often happens that everyone paid attention at the time, but their lives are like everyone else, and after a while they go about their business and while they still cared, the officer and his family are are their own. Hopefully everything worked out and there were no lingering effects. Post traumatic stress disorder can sometimes be avoided even when an individual has the most traumatic, life threatening and life changing experience.


But sometimes intervention isn't as good or as timely as it should have been And other times even the best intervention doesn't work. Look at it like a vaccine that is effective a certain percentage of the time. You don't not want to be inoculated, but you have to realize the preventative measure isn't 100%. So it is with critical incident stress debriefing. It doesn't always prevent police PTSD. Nobody really knows why, except that knowing this there's no excuse for law enforcement not to make sure officers are followed closely for at least two years after an incident. I would recommend at least a monthly half hour session with a good therapist and every other month a meeting which includes the spouse if there is one. Sometimes the individual doesn't see his own symptoms. Either he is denying them or really doesn't recognize how he's changed. Or maybe he kind of see how he's different but it's too painful to think about it for very long.


Police PTSD can be a nasty condition. Aside from dying of a police stress related heart attack, police PTSD is the worst result of police stress sometimes leading to suicide , assault (or even homicide) or divorce. PTSD involves a combination of psychological and physiological changes in a person. On the psychological side, it can shake a person's very belief system to the core. It can produce overwhelming, if illogical, guilt feelings. It can lead to an "I don't give a crap" attitude. It can make a police officer question whether the job has any meaning or value. It can make someone so vigilant he becomes paranoid, unable to trust or let his guard down even when he's completely safe. On the physiological side, as noted in other articles here, it can produce anxiety, irritability, depression, insomnia and a host of physical problems.


But interpersonally, there's where the family is effected. Because police PTSD can cause the sufferer to become emotionally withdrawn and distant from family members. The sex drive can go out the window. He can become overly needy and dependent, or on the other hand outrageously demanding and impatient. He can revert back to old habits like smoking or drinking, or become a newly hatched adolescent and engage in reckless, sometimes life threatening, hobbies. Sometimes hobbies like motorcycling can border on suicidal when officers test the limits of speed and good sense.


Needless to say, if an officer has turned into a devil-may-care adolescent or become sullen and melancholy, he is a different person than he was before the critical incident and the onset of PTSD. The family becomes the secondary victim. Loyalty is tested in the extreme: "if husband or Dad isn't the person he used to be, if sometimes it seems I hardly know him, what am I doing sticking with him?" Of course the families knows when the changes occurred and why, and Dad was probably a hero, made the newspaper, got a distinguished officer award. So they stand by him, but the unhappiness is incredible.


What can the family do? First of all, make sure that nothing was missed as far as treatment goes. Especially whether or not there ever was or still is a need for medication. Sometimes law enforcement officers, especially men, are loathe to take meds. But they need to understand that PTSD may actually irrevocably alter the way their brain functions. Research into this is fairly new, but this is what the evidence suggests. We know that the serotonin in the brain receptor system is drastically effected by stress, hence medications like Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil and the botanical St. John's Wort**, are often recommended and used very effectively to help people through rough times. But sometimes a person needs to stay on these medication indefinitely. So if the officer was on them after the incident and they seemed to help, but he stopped using them, and the symptoms returned, he should probably start using them again. And if he never was on them, family members should urge him to see his doctor to discuss a trial of at least two months.


The treatment of choice for police PTSD is generally a combination of psychotherapy and medication. So in addition to finding a sympathetic and knowledgeable physician or psychiatrist, the officer will need to seek out a therapist who works well with police and correction officers. Any law enforcement therapist has seen officers who have developed PTSD after a critical incident since this is a common occurrence. I wouldn't recommend any drastic life or career changes to an officer until he (and again, it could be a female officer too) has had some therapy, and probably some family meetings with the therapist too. Some officers do quite well when they move out of law enforcement into something completely different following a critical incident that resulted in PTSD, but because law enforcement is as much of a "calling" as medicine or the clergy (or therapy), it is not a decision to be taken lightly.


In closing, the good news for those who suffer directly from it, and those family members who suffer indirectly, is that PTSD is very treatable. And it is never too late to start.


* The term "Police PTSD" is used to differentiate from PTSD percipitated by other causes like rape PTSD or combat PTSD; and also so search engines can more accurately index this page. PTSD, no matter what the cause, is essentially the same condition.

** Many police officers who object to taking psychotropic medications are willing to take St. John's Wort because it isn't pereived as medicine, even though it has the same effect as Prozac in increasing the availability of serotonin in the brain. See my article Nature's Prozac

Much more about Law Enforcement Stress, click here


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