Raising Awareness on PTSD in Law Enforcement

In recognition of National Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Month and National PTSD Awareness Day on June 27, LAAPOA is taking the opportunity to shed light on PTSD and similar mental health conditions, how they affect law enforcement members and resources available to help those who may be suffering in silence.

According to the Department of Veteran Affairs’ National Center for PTSD, there are approximately 12 million people living with PTSD in the U.S., and 6% of the population will have PTSD at some point in their lives. While often associated with military combat veterans, PTSD is a condition that can develop in anyone, regardless of age, who witnesses or experiences a traumatic incident, such as a mass shooting, natural disaster or sexual assault. PTSD is a treatable condition, with an array of effective treatment options to choose from to fit the differing needs of individuals, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.

In law enforcement and other first responder professions, PTSD is especially pervasive among personnel due to the nature of the job, which daily exposes them to myriad traumatic events, high-stress calls, unpredictable dangers and more. In fact, public safety officers have a 25.6 times higher risk of developing PTSD or other similar mental health conditions than those in other professions, per the National Fraternal Order of Police. Other studies have shown that officers experience around 3.5 traumatic events in a six-month period throughout their entire career — more than the average person will experience in their lifetime.

The ways in which people process trauma is highly individualized; it can affect them physically, emotionally, behaviorally and cognitively, and at varying degrees of intensity. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the VA, common symptoms of PTSD include being affected by the event daily, experiencing recurring memories of the event, avoiding things that remind you of the event, having more negative thoughts and feelings following the event, feeling on edge or on guard, and using or abusing substances to forget about the event. It is also common for many to experience acute stress disorder (ASD) before getting PTSD. ASD is a mental health condition that can occur in the first month after a traumatic event, with symptoms that are similar to PTSD but do not persist for longer than a month. The VA reportsthat 80% of people who have ASD are likely to have PTSD six months later.

For this reason, it’s important that officers are able to process and discuss their experiences and feelings following a traumatic incident or difficult call in a supportive, judgment-free environment that encourages ongoing communication. These discussions can occur in debriefings and peer support groups and with chaplains, mental health professionals or family and loved ones. It’s also important for fellow officers to identify signs of PTSD and reach out to their colleagues who exhibit them to provide support and show them they’re not alone. Without such support to help mitigate the effects of trauma exposure, officers are at high risk of developing severe PTSD and other mental and physical health issues, turning to destructive coping methods, self-harm or worse — taking their own lives.

In 2020, nonprofit Blue H.E.L.P. shared that more officers in the U.S. die by suicide each year than are killed by gunfire when it announced that a record number of police officers had lost their lives to suicide in 2019. That year, 228 active and retired officers died by suicide, 56 more than in 2018. But Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) Executive Director Chuck Wexler said that the figure was “undoubtedly underreported,” adding, “Suicide is the number one officer safety issue, and we need more effective research to better understand this national issue.”

Fortunately, in recent years, the issue of PTSD and mental health in law enforcement has become increasingly less taboo, with law enforcement agencies, organizations and nonprofits, educational institutions and more addressing the issue head-on by conducting studies aimed at understanding how the job affects officers’ overall well-being, pushing for legislation that addresses the issue and providing more wellness resources than ever before. For example, LAAPOA’s statewide partner PORAC introduced a training course titled The ABC’s of POWER: Peace Officer Wellness, Ethics and Resilience that focuses on the moral risks of policing and guides officers to create a personal wellness plan that fosters optimal physical, emotional, cognitive, social and spiritual health. Additionally, PORAC hosts a partnership course with Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) titled Traumas of Law Enforcement, which provides training to law enforcement agencies on how to appropriately respond to officers and their families affected by line-of-duty death, disability, critical incidents and police suicide.

Furthermore, on the federal level, legislation has been passed acknowledging the growing issue of PTSD among officers, the need to provide more wellness support in the profession and the lasting or fatal effects that unchecked work-related trauma can have. In August 2022, President Biden signed the Public Safety Officer Support Act into law, which recognizes PTSD as a line-of-duty injury under the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program, expanding the program to allow first responders to seek disability benefits after experiencing traumatic incidents on duty. It also ensures officers who suffer from PTSD, are disabled, or die by or attempt suicide as a result of trauma incurred on duty will be eligible under the PSOB. Additionally, the law extends PSOB eligibility to the families of officers who die by suicide as a result of a traumatic on-duty event.

And this year, the Fighting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Act was reintroduced in Congress, with the Senate passing the bill in March. The bill would establish mental health programs for federal, state and local public safety officers, giving them access to confidential, state-of-the-art treatments for PTSD and ASD. It complements the Public Safety Officer Support Act in that it provides resources that allow officers to address PTSD before it gets to the point where an officer is debilitated by it or contemplates suicide.

“LAAPOA is proud to support legislation and programs that actively try to address PTSD and mental health in the profession. While we have seen great strides being made to highlight the issue and provide effective officer wellness solutions nationwide, the work is far from over,” LAAPOA President Marshall McClain says. “We continue to see our brothers and sisters in blue take their lives because they feel like there are no other options. But help is available, and it is incumbent on us to check in with our partners and colleagues often — even if they did not experience a traumatic incident — and let them know that there are resources out there and that it’s OK not to feel OK.”

Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Resources

If you’re experiencing emotional distress or thoughts of suicide, or if you have a colleague, friend or family member who is struggling, please know that help is available. Below are some national resources, including many specifically designed for law enforcement, that can give you more information or connect you with assistance. (List courtesy of American Police Beat.)

1st Help: An online database that matches first responders with the help they need.

988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, plus prevention and crisis resources. Dial 9-8-8 to connect with a crisis counselor.

Blue H.E.L.P.: Honoring the service of those lost to suicide while working to reduce stigma through education and assist officers in their search for healing.

Code 9 Heroes and Families United: PTSD and suicide prevention awareness, education and help for first responders and their families.

CopLine: A 24/7, 100% confidential helpline for officers and their families, answered by retired police officers. Call (800) 267-5463.

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a live, trained crisis counselor.

First Responder Support Network: Educational treatment programs to promote recovery from stress and critical incidents experienced by first responders and their families.

Safe Call Now: A confidential, comprehensive, 24-hour crisis referral service for all public safety employees, emergency services personnel and their family members nationwide. Call (206) 459-3020.

Suicide Prevention Resource Center — Law Enforcement: Materials, programs, trainings and other suicide prevention information for law enforcement.

VALOR Officer Safety and Wellness Program: The U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Preventing Violence Against Law Enforcement and Ensuring Officer Resilience and Survivability (VALOR) Initiative offers resources and education to prevent injuries to officers and improve their health and resilience.

Veterans Crisis Line: Confidential, 24/7 hotline for military veterans to reach caring, qualified responders with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, many of them veterans themselves. Dial 9-8-8 and then press 1, or text 838255.