Can We Ever End the Stigma?

Certainly, the things we’ve talked about so far are definitely contributing to the problem of suicide in law enforcement, but the one thing that we really need to address that, unless we fix that, nothing else will really matter is:  the STIGMA associated with asking for help.

Our research shows that about 90% of all officers admit that they are affected emotionally by the things they see and do on the job.  So we have to ask, then, whey they don’t seek help, even when they know they need it.  In fact, in the research that we mentioned previously, we asked exactly that.  And in the over 900 open-ended responses we received, the one word used most frequently in those responses was the word “stigma.”

Further research shows that 80% of those responding believe that the stigma is perpetuated by their peers.  In other words, even though an officer knows that when he or she looks around at fellow officers, 9 out of 10 of them are experiencing some level of emotional impact from the job, they believe that 8 out of 10 of those same officers would tell them that they need to “suck it up” and keep going, and to NOT seek any kind of help or support to deal with the stress that they are experiencing.  Instead of acknowledging the effects of the stress of the job, and normalizing the need to address those effects, we keep insisting that people cram more and more stuff into their emotional trash can, and we never encourage them to take out the trash when they need to.

Also, 90% of those respondents said that the stigma is perpetuated by the department or agency they work for.  The don’t believe the administration will have their back.  They believe they will be punished in some way if they admit they need help, and they’ve developed that perception because they’ve seen it happen far too many times.

WHAT EXACERBATES THE PROBLEM OF LE SUICIDE

            Kind of continuing our current thought here, officers simply don’t have confidence that their leaders actually care about their mental and emotional well-being.  According to our research, department leaders only average 2.5 out of 5 stars on the following statements:

  • “Leaders in my department care about the mental wellness of their personnel.”
  • “Leaders in my department believe mental wellness is as important as physical wellness for a resilient and healthy workforce.”
  • “Leaders in my department know how to recruit and hire resilient personnel.”
  • “My department has institutionalized its belief in mental wellness through a set of well-written policies and practices.”
  • “My department has a well-trained peer support team consisting of personnel trained in some form of psychological first aid.”
  • “My department utilizes mental health practitioners who are familiar with emergency services culture and work, and who are trust by personnel within the department.”
  • “Leaders in my department know how to communicate with personnel suffering from emotional distress in ways that are supportive rather than threatening.”

Another issue is that officers are not always as resilient as they think they are.  They do their best to maintain a tough exterior, and they think they are doing themselves a favor by trying to disassociate from the mental and emotional strain, but as they get pushed into a condition of stress overload, you start seeing a progression of problems, such as:

  • Persistent irritability
  • Persistent anxiety
  • Periods of high blood pressure
  • Grinding teeth at night
  • Insomnia
  • Forgetfulness
  • Heart palpitations and/or unusual hearth rhythms
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Headaches

Unmanaged stress at that level can lead to worsening signs of distress that would include:

  • Persistent tardiness or absenteeism
  • Procrastination, turning work in late
  • Decreased sexual desire
  • Persistent tiredness in the mornings
  • Social withdrawal
  • Cynical attitudes
  • Resentfulness
  • Increased consumption of alcohol, caffeinated drinks
  • Apathy

Further unmanaged stress at that level pushes people farther into stress overload, and can result in:

  • Chronic sadness or depression
  • Chronic stomach or bowel problems
  • Chronic physical and/or mental fatigue
  • Chronic headaches
  • The desire to “drop out” of society
  • The desire to move away from work, friends, perhaps even family
  • The desire to commit suicide

Finally, police officers don’t really trust mental health professionals and they are looking for alternatives to help address their needs when it comes to mental wellness, especially after critical incidents, but as a matter of routine as well.  Long story short, here’s what our research has told us:

When asked whether they would prefer a mandatory annual appointment with a mental health professional hired by their department or voluntary participation in an effective peer support program, 7 out of 10 officers said they would prefer to talk to a peer first.

Trust me, there is plenty of room on the continuum of care for both an effective peer support consisting of well-trained and dedicated officers, and the work of licensed mental health professionals for those cases that cannot be fully addressed by peers.  But I do strongly believe that peer support should always be the beginning point on the continuum of care.  In nearly every case when a peer needs to refer someone to a mental health professional, that person is more open to accessing that level of care, and more compliant with the recommendations of the therapist than if they are told by their administration that they must go see a clinician “or else.”

This is Part 4 and the last article of a series of articles on Confronting the Issue of Suicide and we want to thank you for taking time to read them. Meanwhile, if you are struggling with the stresses of the job or of life in general and are looking for some resources for help, please reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org and one of our peer support specialists will be happy to help. If you are in crisis now and need immediate help, please text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor 24/7/365 – always free, always confidential.

Published by David R. Edwards, Ph.D., C.T.S.S.

David is a reserve police officer, chaplain, author, and educator, and a Certified Trauma Services Specialist. He is an approved instructor for the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation and member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association.

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