Police and PTSD

Author: Jessica Terrizzi

Published: Apr 12 2022

Last Edit: Apr 12 2022

(7 min read)

Officers are at High Risk of Developing PTSD

Police officers face traumatic experiences frequently throughout their careers, and many would argue that it is part of their job. In fact, I recently spoke to a police officer who explained that she has to compartmentalize the scenes she sees at work in order to avoid feeling overwhelmed in her daily life. Violanti (2018) names events such as shootings, assaults and exposure to dead bodies and child abuse as some of the traumatic experiences faced by this population. This disorder is especially notable for police officers, as it can affect their decision making and can lead to other problems such as substance use and aggression (Violanti, 2018). As discussed in previous posts, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the most common mental health concerns found among law enforcement officers, and affects approximately 15% of this population (Violanti, 2018). 

But what is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA, 2013), an individual must

  • have witnessed or experienced threatened death, major injury, or sexual violence, 
  • experience “intrusion symptoms”, which are (essentially) memories or images related to the trauma that is unwanted and distressing,
  • avoid situations related to the event, 
  • demonstrate negative changes in their mood or thought process following the trauma, 
  • and exhibit notable differences in arousal and reactivity. 

An individual experiencing PTSD may become more hypervigilant or irritable after a trauma. Another common issue that people frequently associate with PTSD is the experience of vivid and deeply disturbing nightmares. Each of these symptoms of PTSD most commonly start approximately 3 months after the trauma and, in order for a diagnosis of PTSD to be given, these changes must last for longer than a month (National Institute of Mental Health [NIMH], 2020).

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the most common mental health concerns found among law enforcement officers, and affects approximately 15% of this population.

How to Prepare for Trauma

It is important to note that not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD (NIMH, 2020). There are numerous risk factors that can influence someone’s likelihood of establishing this disorder. For example, childhood trauma, poor social support, and having to manage additional stress following a traumatic event can all contribute to whether or not someone establishes PTSD. With this being said, there are also certain factors that can decrease an individual’s likelihood of developing PTSD, such as utilizing healthy coping mechanisms and actively looking for support following a traumatic incident (NIMH, 2020). 

I think that it is especially important for officers to keep in mind that there are ways to effectively manage the aftereffects of trauma. I also believe that police officers would benefit from creating a coping plan in the case that they are faced with something traumatic. Previous studies, such as Stallman (2019) have indicated that methods such as coping plan apps are effective in reducing distress and in improving one’s coping techniques. This may make it easier to get through the incident and help them to face any following repercussions. After dealing with trauma, it is extremely important to make sure that an individual is getting the help that they need, and that they take the time that they need in order to effectively recover. I know many officers don’t want to talk about their trauma, but, in my opinion, it is helpful to think about how the aforementioned symptoms can affect those who care about them, as well as their career and their physical health. 

The Positive Outcomes of Trauma

Also, while experiencing trauma is distressing and can be life changing, there are also some positives that can come out of it. This is referred to as post traumatic growth (PTG). As explained by Maitlis (2020), Tedeschi and Calhoun (1995) described three forms of positive change that can take place after a traumatic incident. 

First, an individual may recognize their own personal resiliency and strength, which can help them cope with future stressors.

Next, the individual might feel more closely connected to others after experiencing a trauma and may form more meaningful relationships.

Last, trauma can lead to an increased sense of meaning and purpose, as well as an increased appreciation for life.

Recognizing that the experience of trauma can result in a positive experience can help reduce the resulting distress, and help you develop a resilience to its after effects.

Coping plan apps are effective in reducing distress and in improving one’s coping techniques.

Treatment and Current Research

The most common treatment for PTSD usually includes psychotherapy and/or medication. Specifically, treatment for PTSD uses talk therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and trauma focused therapies, as well as the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), otherwise known as antidepressants (NIMH, 2020). For such therapies to be effective in the first responder community, it is important to ensure treatment is administered by a culturally-competent clinician who has the awareness of and capacity to process the trauma that officers experience. Better still, to overcome the stigma associated with pursuing help, it is best to present these treatments as part of a comprehensive, tailored wellness program, like the kind we have developed for the Arlington County Police Department.

Possible treatments are constantly evolving, as there is a necessary and constant stream of research on PTSD. Here are three notable and promising examples about methods for identifying and treating the symptoms.

Feder et al. (2020) suggest that ketamine could be a potentially effective treatment for PTSD. Abdallah et al. (2022) did not find evidence to indicate that ketamine is an effective method for reducing PTSD symptoms, however, and suggest that further research needs to be done on this topic. 

Trauma Informed Guilt Reduction (TrIGR) is a new form of talk therapy that lasts for about six sessions. Norman et al. (2022) indicate that this new intervention may be useful for individuals who experience notable levels of guilt after a trauma. It is currently under further study.

Jiang et al. (2021) studied how machine learning, which is a form of computational statistics, can identify specific traits associated with the onset of PTSD and whether the diagnostic process can be shortened without affecting its precision. Ultimately, it was concluded that machine learning is a promising potential strategy.

If you are interested in staying up to date on this research, you can visit The National Center for PTSD’s website to view the most current publications.

It is important to ensure treatment is administered by a culturally-competent clinician who has the awareness of and capacity to process the trauma that officers experience.

What You Can Do

PTSD is a common occurrence among police officers due to their job, but there are effective ways to deal with it. In fact, there are sometimes even positive changes that can take place following a trauma. At the individual level, police officers can take steps towards effectively managing the repercussions of trauma through finding social support and creating a coping plan. But when PTSD symptoms start to present, the most commonly used forms of treatment for this disorder are SSRIs and talk therapy. Finally, while there are a variety of symptoms associated with this disorder, there is promising ongoing research on the most effective and efficient ways to treat PTSD in all its presentations.


Jessica Terrizzi, M.A.

Ph.D Student in Counseling Psychology

Jess is a 4th year doctoral student at the University of Akron. She has a strong interest in law enforcement due to her family’s extensive background in policework. Through experiences with family and friends who are in this field, Jess has recognized a need for applying psychology to law enforcement through both research and the development of wellness programs. Jess also has an interest in researching both masculinity and trauma, and plans on working with police officers in the clinical setting.


  • Abdallah, C. G., Roache, J. D., Gueorguieva, R., Averill, L. A., Young-McCaughan, S., Shiroma, P. R., Krystal, J. H. (2022). Dose-related effects of ketamine for antidepressant-resistant symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder in veterans and active duty military: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled multi-center clinical trial. Neuropsychopharmacology: official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 1–8. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-022-01266-9.
  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.
  • Feder, A., Rutter, S. B., Schiller, D., & Charney, D. S. (2020). The emergence of ketamine as a novel treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Advances in Pharmacology, 89, 261-286. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.apha.2020.05.004.
  • Jiang, T., Dutra, S., Lee, D. J., Rosellini, A. J., Gauthier, G. M., Keane, T. M., Marx, B. P. (2021). Toward reduced burden in evidence-based assessment of PTSD: A machine learning study. Assessment, 28(8), 1971-1982. https://doi.org/10.1177/1073191120947797.
  • Maitlis, S. (2020). Post-traumatic Growth at work. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 7(1), 395–419. https://doi.org.10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-012119-044932.
  • National Institute of Mental Health [NIMH]. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Retrieved March 28, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd.
  • Norman, S. B., Capone, C., Panza, K. E., Haller, M., Davis, B. C., Schnurr, P. P., Shea, M. T., Browne, K., Norman, G. J., Lang, A. J., Kline, A. C., Golshan, S., Allard, C. B., & Angkaw, A. (2022). A clinical trial comparing trauma-informed guilt reduction therapy (TrIGR), a brief intervention for trauma-related guilt, to supportive care therapy. Depression and Anxiety, 39(4), 262–273. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.23244
  • Stallman, Helen M. (2019). Efficacy of the My Coping Plan mobile application in reducing distress: A randomised controlled trial. Clinical Psychologist, 23(3), 206-212. https://doi.org/10.1111/cp.12185.
  • Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (1995). Trauma & transformation: Growing in the aftermath of suffering. Sage Publications, Inc. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781483326931.
  • Violanti, J. (2018, May). PTSD among Police officers: Impact on critical decision making. Retrieved March 28, 2022, from https://cops.usdoj.gov/html/dispatch/05-2018/PTSD.html

This post does not provide medical or clinical advice and is no substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is intended for informational purposes only. Visitors who access the post and rely on its content do so at their own risk. This post represents the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. If you are feeling lost or hopeless, or someone you know is feeling lost or hopeless, call the national suicide prevention hotline at (800) 273-8255

© 2022 The Cummings Foundation for Behavioral Health. All Rights Reserved.