August 24, 1998 -
The Tragic Outcome of Police Stress:
by Hal Brown, LICSW
Police Stress Therapist and Special Police Officer
The Boston Globe,
Sunday August 23, 1998 and August 24 featuring a lengthy article
on police suicide.
On Sunday morning I had already dragged myself, bleeding
and feeling stupid and sorry for myself, out of the pick-up truck I backed
into the ditch of one of our cranberry bogs, (Click
here to see), when I picked up the Sunday paper
and my self-absorption immediately dissipated when I saw the top headline
Suicide epidemic spreads through police ranks. The lengthy two part article
by David Armstrong covered all the aspects of police suicide, though I was
disappointed at first to see what I thought was a hint of a negative slant
given to the well known fact that the statistics on police suicide are unreliable
because of how many police suicides are reported as accidental.
Maybe that's just my biased reading of the article,
the cop part of me has a tendency to get defensive when I feel an outsider
is attacking law enforcement. It is an important fact. Police stress in
general and police suicide in particular has been ignored, misrepresented,
and inadequately studied. In part this is because far too many police suicides
have been covered up, often as the article suggests, because of embarrassment,
life insurance considerations, and potential law suits. The result of under-reporting
has been that remedial actions that could have saved lives have not been
taken, and too many police departments (and correction departments as well)
have not developed police stress programs and critical incident debriefing
The percentages of suicide in law enforcement are staggering.
But even one police suicide is one too many. The fact is that virtually
all suicide caused by depression and anger is preventable with appropriate
Police officers are no different than anyone else when
it comes to the vicious cycle of despair that accompanies, and is part and
parcel of suicidal depression. Like a snake eating it's tail, depression
feeds on itself. Instead of recognizing that feeling hopeless is a symptom
of depression, you interpret the feeling as a fact, and begin to think thoughts
that support and fuels the feeling and makes it worse.
There's one form of suicide that can be remedied without
a police stress therapist or counselor, and that's suicide caused by insensitive
police administration. In instances when officers feel betrayed or abandoned
by their bosses and hung out to dry, for whatever reason, it is common for
depression to result. Anger, outrage and resentment, often justified, can
mask the underlying depression. While it sounds adolescent, and police officers
in particular rarely admit thinking it, suicide is often preceded by the
thought: I'll show them. Police suicides that occur on duty are often the
result of rage at the police bureaucracy. Officers can become so emersed
in visualizing the scene of being discovered dead at the wheel of their
cruiser that it doesn't really sink in that they won't be around to witness
the goings on.
Even a police officer who has betrayed his or her oath
doesn't deserve to die. In fact, when a police officer is suspended pending
an investigation which could result in serious disciplinary action, referral
to a police stress counselor (with whom confidentiality is assured) should
be standard operating procedure.
There's really no such thing as run-of-the-mill police
stress. Police officers are so adept at pretending everything is copacetic
that what appears to be minor stress can really be the tip of the iceberg.
And we know what happened to the Titanic. Every warning sign of stress must
be taken seriously. It is better to err on the side of caution than ignore
a problem that could result in the death of an officer.
article "Making it in a Man's World: The Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs
of the Lady Cop" is reprinted in the August issue of On
Added August 16, 1998:
What's in a name: Is Corrections Correct?
Added August 10, 1998: Why
In-house police stress counselors and corrections stress officers need to
Some thoughts on police stress for first time visitors below,
or go to:
Welcome to the police stress web site. This web site deals with the unique
stress of police work. Often, though, when I refer to police stress what
I say applies to stress among all law enforcement officers, correction officers,
firefighters, EMS personnel, and police families and police spouses. Especially,
police spouses. Other service professions protect and serve, and police
stress has become a term that often encompasses the stress of a being a
member of a subculture within society composed of people who deal with life
and death. All you have to do is watch an accident scene when firefighters,
EMS, and police are all working together to understand the commonalities
between these professionals. All of these dedicated professionals must be
willing to put themselves in harms way to do their job. They are the people
who run towards gunfire, not away from it; and go into burning buildings,
not out of them.
In these violent times any crime or accident scene can erupt into a dangerous
confrontation. Who ever heard the term "road rage" ten years ago?
Who ever thought expectorated saliva (AKA: spit) would become a potential
weapon? "A.I.D.S." The initials meant nothing. Latex gloves and
eye protectors have probably saved as many public safety personnel lives
(and a lot of worry) as bulletproof vests.
Police and correction officers belong to a subculture within that subculture
because of the power of the badge and the dangers that go with carrying
it. Whether you call it "The Thin Blue Line" or just "the
job", carrying that badge and gun does make you someone different because
the authority to arrest, to take away if only for a short time our most
basic freedom which is to come and go as we please;
and the power of the gun (and baton, pepper spray, etc.)
the police can under certain circumstances kill or physically harm a
citizen. Even the military can't do this unless mobilized and authorized
to do so under martial law or by order of the governor.
Police and correction officers (as well as prison nurses, counselors
and doctors) never know when they may become the target of individuals who
intend to harm or kill them.
Like firefighters who must enter burning buildings and EMS personnel
who deal with AIDS, hepatitis and TB as well as violent subjects, they must
also be willing to put their lives on the line to protect citizens. Any
member of the emergency response team can become a target.
Police stress takes a huge toll. Police stress can come
on quickly as a result of a critical incident like a shooting, or it can
come on slowly. Police often don't seek counseling for reasons which are
discussed in articles here. Police counseling is a relatively new specialty
in the mental health professions. Police counseling hasn't attracted many
mental health professionals, reasons for this are also discussed in an article
on this web site, but briefly it has to do in part with the fact that many
psychotherapists haven't been inclined to get the first hand exposure to
police and police work needed to develop a genuine knowledge base and true
empathy for what it is like to be "on the job".
Police counseling, police peer counseling, even critical incident stress
management, and critical incident stress debriefing (CISM and CISD) while
they have been known to be exceeding helpful for at least twenty years,
are still not employed often enough. While society is fascinated by the
police profession, police stress is not part of the "glamorous"
aspect of "the job". For every depiction in the media of police
stress there must be a hundred car chases and shoot-outs. I cannot emphasize
enough that police stress is an issue that everyone, from police officers
and those close to them, and others in the "on the front line"
professions, needs to fully understand and in a sense inoculate themselves
against as best they can. It is too easy and entirely natural for people
working in these professions to use humor and denial as ways to avoid the
emotional impact of what they see and do as part of their jobs. I am frequently
reminded of this, and it was brought home to me again the other day when
I talked to a MedFlight nurse at a training exercise. She told me about
how she and her colleagues use humor to cope with the fact that they see
only the most serious cases and have the most loss of life
despite their valiant efforts. At least she is working in a team all of
the time. Police officers experience more police stress when their assignment
is such that they work alone, or because of the culture within their department,
they feel they must keep their feelings to themselves. This happens with
the Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) deputies in Massachusetts. While
some may think their job is a low-stress one involving crime scene investigation,
fingerprint dusting, automobile accident reconstruction and so on, it isn't.
They also have to photograph the victims or crime and accidents to do their
job and then generally go back to a department where there is usually noone
to talk to who was also at the scene.
Seeking professional help or even showing emotion when "debriefing"
after handling a trauma is sometimes seen as a weakness. It is important
for good mental health that police counseling is a seen as a valid, vital
resource for those who truly protect and serve us. I say this not just because
police counseling is my area of specialty, but because I have police and
correction officers who are my friends as well. Working as a reserve officer
for twenty years doesn't make me a "real cop", but it has made
me some true friends, and given me a better appreciation of police stress
than I would otherwise have. I will be writing about police stress and responding
to your concerns as you let me know about them on this web site. I promise
to be forthright and direct, because you have enough "police stress"
without having "shrink stress" thrown at you too.
Guestbook and more below or go to:
Click here to see the coolest
police cruiser of the summer. Or take the tour
of Plymouth Harbor ; or if you're living far from the ocean and crave
the salt air and want to go to the cyber-beach you
can check out Little Harbor Beach on Buzzard's Bay. And, Webmasters,
there are fourteen beach backgrounds (sand, stones, water etc.) which you
are free to use on your own web site.
cranberry fans, and the just plain curious, check out the Unlikey Cranberry
Farmers page for an online tour of our cranberry bogs. If you'd like
to visit in person, there's an open invitation for all law enforcement officers
to get the free grand tour. In fact, if you come during harvest, the first
three weeks in October, you can experience the ultimate in police stress
relief. Taking our cue from Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, for two bits we'll
let you join the picking crew. We charge you a little extra for the privilege
of working in the rain. It's police stress relief, after all. And of course,
you get all the raw berries you can eat on the job.
Pay your respects to our fallen comrades at the|