High-stress situations are the norm for law enforcement and correctional officers. Even in life-threatening or unclear circumstances, they are expected to maintain composure to protect themselves and others. As you might expect, performing under this kind of pressure requires resilience and sound mental health.
So, what happens when officers experience PTSD, depression, or similar issues?
While most law enforcement agencies have mental health procedures in place following traumatic events, day-to-day experiences can also take a toll. Even with resources available, it's often up to individuals to take advantage of them or speak up about their needs.
Here's how officers can prioritize their mental health:
Recognize Poor Coping Strategies
Coping is the way we adapt and adjust to trauma or stress. It's a natural, normal behavior and there are many ways to positively cope. For example, talking with a friend, going for a run, fishing, reading a book, listening to music, hot bath, crafts, carpentry, etc. are common ways to unwind.
Sometimes though, traumatic events or extreme pressure can feel hard to process. Our normal, positive coping mechanisms can be replaced with ones that are damaging to ourselves or those around us.
If you feel yourself slipping into one or more of the poor coping strategies below, it may indicate you're struggling with a mental health issue:
Alcohol and substance abuse
Withdrawal from important relationships
Irritability, outbursts of anger, frequent arguments
Hyper-vigilance or excessive worry, especially about being involved in events like the critical incident experienced
Avoidance of activities or places that trigger memories
Any behavior that is not normal for you
Admit When Time Away Is Needed
Because of their duty to protect and serve the public, officers are often characterized as fearless, self-reliant, and tough. As a result, these high expectations only intensify the stigma surrounding mental health. Many worry about being considered "weak" or "unfit" for the job if they admit they're struggling.
But just as a broken leg might prevent you from performing physical tasks, a poor mental state can keep you from making decisions with clarity. After all, this is why many officers are put on desk duty following a traumatic event.
Overall, good leaders and peers recognize mental health as a priority and won't think less of you for admitting you need to step away from your routine. If you're struggling after a traumatic event or feeling stressed in your day-to-day duties, be transparent with your supervisor.
For more mental health tips and real stories surrounding them, check out our flexible online officer training.