Author: Jessica Terrizzi
Published: Jan 14 2022
Last Edit: Jan 14 2022
(8 min read)
Police officer wellness is in a critical state. Research shows that high amounts of stress within this profession has led to mental health concerns such as anxiety, PTSD, and depression (Velazquez & Hernandez, 2019). And a failure to support police officer wellness has contributed to a concerning increase in police officer suicide. A police officer’s main job is to serve and protect the public; if they are not taking care of themselves, how are they supposed to fulfill their duties effectively?
Ignoring police officer well-being and not taking these concerns seriously has a snowball effect. When police officers ignore their well-being/overall health needs (or the public fails to support those needs), we see an increase in mental health problems, which then can lead to further concerns like increased alcohol use, and then other issues such as relationship problems and suicide. We need to take active measures early on to prevent this tragic story from recurring.
The Cummings Foundation for Behavioral Health is working to confront this problem head-on by pioneering a police wellness program with the Arlington County Police Department. The foundation seeks to support active-duty officers through the traumas they experience on the job and to better understand the resources needed to ensure police wellness. This post outlines some key points in our research through this process.
A police officer's main job is to serve and protect the public; if they are not taking care of themselves, how are they supposed to fulfill their duties effectively?
So if police officers are benefitting from these programs… why is implementing them so complicated?
Well, for one, the culture of law enforcement certainly plays a role. Statistically, men are less likely to talk about mental health concerns than women are. Also, statistically, about 88% of police officers are male, which most likely contributes to the lack of mental health discussions occurring among law enforcement. Police officers also worry about being degunned (Demou et al., 2020) and stigmatized (Wheeler, 2018). Destigmatizing discussion of mental health issues, streamlining how to seek help and otherwise building better communication channels are, therefore, high priority for improving wellness in police.
Statistically, men are less likely to talk about mental health concerns than women are. Also, statistically, about 88% of police officers are male, which most likely contributes to the lack of mental health discussions occurring among law enforcement.
Therapy sounds like an obvious solution to improving police mental health and well-being. However, I’m sure it’s no surprise to learn that police officers are not usually willing to participate in therapy. While this is understandable, it is also alarming. Police officers experience trauma as a regular part of their job and face increased stress due to this – a phenomenon researchers call “occupational stress injury” (Antony et al., 2020) – yet they don’t talk about it. Not talking about trauma can be extremely detrimental and could have many negative effects on the officer’s professional life and on their personal lives.
Fortunately, there is promising evidence to support the effectiveness of alternative interventions, such as mindfulness training, physical fitness classes, and peer support groups with police officers. Mindfulness training can take the form of meditation, virtual reality, and even deep breathing. As far as physical fitness, research shows us that cardiorespiratory exercise is especially important for police officers, as it reduces the risk of cardiac events (Schilling et al., 2019). Also, in general, exercise has been shown to improve anxiety, depression, and stress (Mikkelson et al., 2017); all of which are notable problems among law enforcement officers. Nutrition is also an important component of this too. Peer support groups have growing evidence that they are an important tool for improving police officer wellness. We know that police officers are much more willing to talk to other police officers due to shared experiences and a higher level of trust, which is why these programs are especially useful.
We know that police officers are much more willing to talk to other police officers due to shared experiences and a higher level of trust, which is why these programs are especially useful.
Decreased well-being among police officers also affects those closest to police officers, such as their friends and their families. Because of this, support services specifically for family members are starting to be included as a component of police officer wellness programs. I don’t think that many people realize the detrimental effect that having a loved one who works in law enforcement can have on someone. First of all, if the law enforcement officer themself is struggling, then who is going to be there to pick up the pieces? Their family or significant other. Research shows that police officers are more likely to engage in domestic violence and are more likely to have substance use problems as a result of their job. Obviously, this is a strong concern for family members of police officers, since they’re the ones who have to deal with them. If these problems aren’t stressful enough, think about the anxiety that police officers’ families experience every time their loved one leaves for a shift. Constantly worrying about their loved one while they are on duty is definitely going to take a toll on these families.
Most officers are in a state of "hypervigilance" when on duty and have to expend all of their resources for several days in a row, so of course they are exhausted.
Police officer wellness is affected by factors such as social support, physical health, and administrative support. So, how do we measure police officer wellness if it is such a complex issue? Research suggests that police officers struggle with specific problems including substance use, PTSD, depression, and anxiety (Velazquez & Hernandez, 2019), as well as stress (Arble et al., 2018). As a result, it is important to measure each of these constructs to gain a better understanding of what police officers are dealing with. There are also several measures of overall well-being in general, and we can take physical measurements such as BMI and blood tests to determine officer well-being. Through collecting this information, we can see how police officers are doing, and what interventions should be implemented.
It’s important that police officers are provided resources to manage their well-being because it influences their interactions with the public, and relatedly, can affect aspects of job performance. If police officers are experiencing occupational stress injury and are not taking care of themselves, it is unlikely that they will be reaching their full potential at work because they will likely have lower job satisfaction. Job satisfaction is highly associated with job performance, and Nisar and Rasheed (2019) suggest that through decreasing work related stress, the job satisfaction and job performance of law enforcement officers would be enhanced. Improving officer well-being leads to the best possible police officers, which ultimately benefits the officer, their families, and the public.
Job satisfaction is highly associated with job performance, and Nisar and Rasheed (2019) suggest that through decreasing work related stress, the job satisfaction and job performance of law enforcement officers would be enhanced.
There is a concerningly small amount of research on resolving the problems related to police officer well-being. Fortunately, awareness of the topic is growing and research programs are being created to better understand the problems that officers face and how to resolve them. In fact, this post is the direct result of one of these programs! As explained in my police officer suicide post, there are ways to attenuate this issue. It seems that the biggest problem with fixing this problem is finding the most effective ways to reach this population, though. Hopefully as awareness grows related to the unique problems that officers face, we can find how to most effectively work towards resolving this problem.
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.
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.
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