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Police officers across the US face stigmatization when it comes to mental health, and refusing to seek treatment could affect communities they're expected to protect, experts told Insider.
The police profession is constructed around the notion of helping others, and for many officers that means showing no signs of weakness, even when it comes to daily stresses and mental health.
Consequences of not seeking mental-health treatment put officers at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, mania, and panic attacks, experts say.
When Seth Stoughton became a police officer, he noticed that part of taking the oath to protect and serve meant that men and women in blue were "supposed to handle their s---."
Feeling the impact of things they'd seen or experienced in the line of duty was considered a weakness, and could even put their jobs in jeopardy, Stoughton, now a policing expert and associate professor at the University of South Carolina Law School, told Insider.
While he would often talk to other officers about the stress in their personal lives, talking about the stress of their work was taboo.
"We could be very candid with each other as friends about marital stress — but it wasn't a mental-health discussion, it wasn't a police discussion," he said.
Stoughton isn't the only one who feels this way.
In 2018, NBC Los Angeles surveyed police officers who belong to the Los Angeles Police Protective League and found that nearly 80% of respondents said they experienced critical stress on the job and that a whopping 90% said seeking therapy as a police officer was stigmatized.
At least 228 police officers died by suicide in 2019, higher than all other line-of-duty deaths combined, according to Blue HELP, a first-responder mental-health organization tracking suicides among law-enforcement agencies in the US.
Issues around policing have dominated headlines since May 25, when George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died following an arrest in which a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck or nearly nine minutes. In his final moments, Floyd was handcuffed, his face pressed to the ground, repeatedly saying, "Please, I can't breathe." Video of the scene circulated widely on social media, and four officers have since been fired and face criminal charges.
In the weeks since, protests have erupted worldwide calling for an end to police brutality. Suggestions for change have ranged from requiring officers to take de-escalation training to abolishing police departments in their current form altogether.
"Right now, the conversation is about how bad police officers are and all the changes that need to be made," Rashawn Ray, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park who is also a David M. Rubenstein fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told Insider. "But what's not included is what police officers need to be able to do their jobs better, and I think improved mental-health service is key."
The stigmatization of seeking help for mental-health issues among law-enforcement officers does not justify the discrimination and violence that has given rise to protests. But experts told Insider that the brunt of that unaddressed psychological toll could be felt by the communities that police officers are expected to serve.
"Bad apples fall from rotten trees in policing, and not only is the rotten tree about structural racism but also about the lack of care for police officers' mental health," Ray said.
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Ray said that he thought the protests against law enforcement were justified and that the racial disparities in police violence needed to be addressed. But, he said, the attacks on police officers could also take a toll and needed to be factored into any solutions.
"It impacts a person when they get attacked verbally," he said. "And I know from all the research I've done and all the interviews I've done with police officers that they internalize this stress."
Seeking help historically landed police officers on the 'bow-and-arrow squadron'
Risdon Slate, a professor of criminology at Florida Southern College, says police departments are modeled after paramilitary organizations and are pervaded by a "John Wayne syndrome."
"It's the 'stiff upper lip, don't show any emotion, don't let anything bother you' mentality, but, of course, internally, the stress of the job is impacting you," he said. "The problem is, traditionally, if police officers were to ask for help, they ended up being placed on what we call the 'bow-and-arrow squadron' — their service revolver was taken away and they were given a desk job."
In a Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act report to Congress in 2019, the Community Oriented Policing Services division of the Department of Justice said the daily realities of being a member of a police department put officers at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, mania, and panic attacks.
Ray described it as an inability to "turn off" from police work.
"We have to ask ourselves, how could a person ever free their mind when everywhere they go — from being in a park with their kids to having a meal at a bar with friends — they're supposed to be 'on,'" he said.
Other pressures include facing the unknown whenever they leave their homes, "drastically different situations every day," and having to "go from zero to 100 very quickly," Ray said, adding that research had found police officers' heart rates and stress levels would spike when they heard sirens.
And then there's the problematic trifecta. "Police officers are overworked, overstressed, and underpaid," Ray said. "No matter what profession you have, when you have that combination it's going to lead to mental-health problems."
Police officers have access to department psychologists and support groups, but it's a very "macho-oriented profession," and indicating that "you have a problem or that you're not coping well with something can really put an end to your career," Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Insider.
For her part, Haberfeld underscored that police officers' days were often occupied by "worst-case scenarios" — whether that's dealing with murderers, rapists, and violent criminals or responding to deadly car crashes and domestic-violence calls. The issue is, she said, is that they don't have "any tools to deal with the experiences — other than 'Suck it up, this is part of the job, be cool, calm, and collected.'"
Police officers as public peace servants — not warriors
Floyd's death has focused a harsh spotlight on policing behaviors and ushered in a wave of criticism over law enforcement.
Since Memorial Day, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets daily to demand justice for Floyd and an end to systemic racism and police violence. There have been several reports of police officers driving squad cars into crowds, shoving protesters, attacking people with pepper spray and batons, and shooting rubber bullets at journalists and demonstrators. Calls to dismantle police departments are mounting — with some cities, including Minneapolis, taking steps toward that goal — and chokeholds and other "deadly force" techniques are being banned across the country.
Ray said it's necessary to talk about officers' mental health and urged people to advocate legislative action and procedural changes so officers can get the resources they need. He also suggested offsetting some of the income inequities officers face by providing them with housing subsidies and down-payment grants.
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"How can you build connections with people when you're not there?" he said. "So you help them put money down on a home to be able to permanently live where they work. That can really transform trust and communication."
Ray also urged police departments to mandate quarterly psychological counseling as a way to normalize mental-health resources so "officers can get the help that they need, deserve, and desire."
It'd also help to change the narrative about police work — he added that they should be viewed as public peace servants, not warriors or superheroes.
Activists are fighting for police departments in the US to be defunded, calling for city budgets to realign society's priorities by rerouting funding to other community groups. The result could change the way public safety is handled, and many are calling for non-police public servants to deal with community issues and concerns.
"The training that officers receive completely plays into the 'warrior mentality' of what it means to be a police officer, but nine out of 10 of their daily interactions with people have nothing to do with violence," Ray said. "Unfortunately, their training is flipped. They spend much less time on techniques that deal with social interactions compared to tactics that are about physical force."
Psychological help isn't meant to 'punitive' — it's 'aimed at helping them police more effectively'
Meanwhile, the psychologist Thomas E. Coghlan, who is a retired New York City Police Department detective, pushed for confidentiality for officers who seek mental-health resources — something he says he struggled with while seeing patients as a psychologist working for the NYPD.
"There must be absolutely ironclad, 100% confidentiality when [an] officer reaches out for mental-health services, and that is something that agencies do not do well at all," he told Insider. "The last thing a chief wants to hear about is being told no, he can't have access to know where an officer is in treatment, or why they're in treatment, or what their diagnosis is, or when they're coming back to work and what medications they're on. They shouldn't know any of that."
For his part, Slate of Florida Southern College sees the NYPD's Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance program as an innovative model that other police forces should consider implementing.
Eric Gay/AP Photo
The POPPA website describes the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week program as "a volunteer police support network" that promises "a confidential, safe and supportive environment" to officers. The group's work ranges from PTSD to marital issues, substance abuse, suicide, and, most recently, COVID-19.
"Instead of pushing everything under the rug, they are transparent about trying to help somebody who has gone through a stressful event, and I think that's extremely important," said Slate, who also believes that training to be on a Crisis Intervention Team can help officers themselves.
CIT features law-enforcement officers, mental-health professionals, and people who live with mental illnesses and their families. The goal is to help people with "mental disorders and/or addictions access medical treatment rather than place them in the criminal justice system due to illness-related behaviors," its website says.
More than 2,600 police departments nationwide train their officers in crisis intervention, and Slate believes that while the program is "oriented to deal with someone who is mentally ill and in a crisis, police officers can learn about the resources in their communities so it can be a benefit for the police as well as people who encounter the police."
Haberfeld offered a different perspective.
She said mental-health resources needed to be underscored as early as in the police academy. Haberfeld highlighted how Finland offered a three-year police university in which higher-ups not only encourage cadets to de-stress with yoga and meditation but also educate them on how ergonomic furniture can help with relaxation.
Haberfeld also came up with a program called FIT, which stands for "feelings, input, and tactics" and is meant to be part of in-service training. It involves leaderless groups in which police officers can share experiences and challenges with peers and eventually come up with tactics to help themselves and one another.
Like a 'powder keg' on the verge of exploding
The fact that seeking help for mental-health issues continues to be steeped in stigma could trigger functional impairments that result in lasting damage in the communities police are serving, according to Coghlan.
"It's going to show itself at work and show itself in social interactions out in the community," he said. "You're putting an officer on the street and out into the public with the right to enforce the law and make an arrest and use lethal force, who's not operating at an optimal capacity and is potentially impaired by some sort of mental-health issue."
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Craig Atkinson, the filmmaker behind the 2016 police militarization documentary "Do Not Resist," said his father was a police officer outside Detroit for 29 years, so he witnessed firsthand the stigma around going to a psychologist.
Police officers face "low-level stress over the course of 30 years," he said, in a way that can accumulate "like a powder keg."
"It really is cumulative, and I think a lot of these situations where cops make poor decisions at a moment's notice, it's oftentimes the end result of an entire line of trauma that they personally have experienced by going out" in the field, Atkinson added.
Ray echoed the sentiment.
"We have to focus on police officers as human beings," he said.
This article has been updated.
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