Suffering in Silence No More: Shedding Light on PTSD Among Peace Officers

June is National PTSD Awareness Month, a time dedicated to fostering understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder and increasing support for those impacted by it. While PTSD can develop in anyone who witnesses or experiences a traumatic event, it is especially pervasive among peace officers, as well as other first responders and military veterans. LAAPOA wants to take this opportunity to shed light on the causes and symptoms of PTSD, how it affects law enforcement and the resources available to help.

Most people will experience at least one traumatic event in the course of their lifetime, whether it’s a car accident, a sexual assault, a natural disaster or a mass shooting. Having a reaction to such shocking and dangerous events is normal, but the majority of people typically recover over time. However, some people develop PTSD, often due to risk factors beyond their control. According to the National Center for PTSD, part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there were about 13 million people living with PTSD nationwide as of 2020, and 6% of the population will have PTSD at some point in their lives.

One risk factor for PTSD is working in law enforcement, which repeatedly exposes personnel to myriad traumatic events, high-stress calls and unpredictable dangers. Research has found that peace officers experience an average of around 3.5 traumatic events for each six months they serve. In a 30-year career, that adds up to over 200% more traumatic experiences than the average person will have in their lifetime. Studies also show that the risk of developing PTSD or other similar mental health conditions is 25.6 times higher for public safety officers than the general public.

Because people process trauma in highly individualized ways, the effects can manifest physically, emotionally, behaviorally and cognitively, at varying levels 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 it, avoiding things that remind you of it, 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 reports that 80% of people who have ASD are likely to develop PTSD six months later.

For this reason, it’s important for officers to be 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. The nonprofit Blue H.E.L.P. has shared that more officers in the U.S. die by suicide each year than are killed by gunfire, and Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) Executive Director Chuck Wexler has called it “the number one officer safety 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, the Public Safety Officer Support Act, which became law in August 2022, 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.

“LAAPOA and our statewide partners at PORAC are proud to continue to support legislation and programs that actively address PTSD and other mental health issues in our profession,” LAAPOA President Marshall McClain says. “We have seen great strides made to bring awareness to this issue and promote officer wellness solutions, but the work is far from over. Too many of us are still suffering in silence, resisting asking for help, denying that we need it or unsure where to turn. During this National PTSD Awareness Month, it’s important to emphasize that there are many different PTSD treatment options available, and they are truly effective. June 27 is PTSD Screening Day, and I encourage anyone who may be struggling to take a self-screen or speak with a health care provider to find out if PTSD could be affecting you. I also urge all our members to check in on your partners and colleagues regularly and encourage them to seek help if you see signs of stress or trauma. Together, we can increase education, support and healing for all our law enforcement brothers and sisters.”

Here are a few additional resources to help you learn more: