Is the Culture the Culprit?

Well, let’s start by talking about the culture of law enforcement and how both the positive and negative elements of that culture may be contributing to the mental wellness issues suffered by our personnel.  And we’re going to use a fairly simple definition of culture: “The way we do things around here.”

First, one way the culture can be described as positive is by the expectations that characterize both the agency and the people who choose to work in emergency services.  Meeting those expectations is critical to the success of the organization and ultimately to protect the lives and property that we are sworn to protect.  Those expectations include:

  • Having a strict sense of discipline and understanding that there are going to be rules, regulations, policies, and procedures that must adhered to.
  • Working in any of the emergency services requires a strong work ethic, and having a high regard for, and the personal capacity for, physical and mental toughness.
  • Being a protector is part of the job.  It goes without saying that those working in emergency services should be protective of their own families, but also of civilians, and they will come across as being chivalrous and altruistic in their approach to serving the public.
  • Finally, there will be a code of conduct that provides a framework for an organizational culture that reflects well-defined and strongly supported moral and ethical principles.  In other words, people who are willing to put on the uniform and serve others are, first and foremost, just good people.

Another way to describe the culture as positive is by taking a look at the leadership structure.  Every successful organization needs principled leaders, and those leaders need to be effective at inspiring the members of the organization to follow (and for the followers to ultimately to be developed into leaders themselves).  Here’s what this looks like in a good organization:

  • The organization is highly structured, and by nature must also be very authoritarian.  Not dictatorial, but authoritarian.  Someone has to be in charge, and while good leaders will listen and gain input from others, the decision of the leader must ultimately be followed.  The lives of people working in these organizations depends on this.  You may recall the line from the movie A Few Good Men when Col. Jessup says, “We follow orders, son.  We follow orders or people die!” 
  • Which leads to the second statement about leadership, which is that leaders expect loyalty from their subordinates and from their allies.  Everyone should want the leader to succeed, because if the leader succeeds, the organization succeeds.
  • Leaders, and followers of course, must be mission focused and goal-oriented.  Goals and objectives are clear, there become a right way and wrong way to accomplish the task, and leaders understand how to communicate those goals and objectives so that the mission at hand is accomplished. 

Finally, a positive aspect of emergency services culture is the nature of the personal commitment demonstrated by everyone in the organization.  In a great emergency services agency:

  • There is a warrior culture that is characterized by some of the most praiseworthy traits imaginable – bravery, duty, honor, loyalty.  In a successful organization, we are going to see every member displaying those traits.
  • There is the feeling of loyalty to comrades.  Everyone is in it together, and everyone will be concerned about building others up, and everyone is going to make sure that they are watching out for one another before, during, and after any incident to which they are called upon to respond.  They will never leave anyone behind!
  • And finally, the mission comes first above all else.  I’m reminded of the motto made famous by the Army’s 1st Infantry Division: “No mission too difficult, no sacrifice too great.  Duty first!”

That covers the positive aspects of the culture that is prevalent in law enforcement as well as in the military and other emergency services.  There are plenty of good reasons to do things a certain way, but a lot of the negative consequences that people working in emergency services may experience are caused by some of the very things that make that culture as successful as it is.

            There are, for example, some personal realities associated with the culture.  People working in emergency services come from a variety of backgrounds, and even though they are willing to commit to the same rules and regulations, the same sense of order, the same chain of command, and so on, they still bring with them their own personalities and their own unique life experiences.  Learning to conform to the common cultural expectations of the job will often mean:

  • That the level of commitment required to learn the job and do the job well may make the individual feel as though he or she is “married to the job.”  They often end up spending more time doing and thinking about the job than spending time doing things they personally enjoy or that their friends and family members wish they could do together.
  • It also may mean finding it difficult to juggle between the department and home life.  Whether that’s finding the appropriate and necessary balance in answering the question, “how was your day?” or whether that’s deciding not to volunteer for an extra detail or overtime shift in order to spend time with the family, those choices often become more difficult.
  • Many times, the job ends up becoming the identity.  It starts that way because we are so proud of what we do.  It ends that way because we don’t know how to do anything else.  Not surprising, it is believed that 80% of emergency services retiree suicides happen within the first 2-3 years of retirement.  Why?  One reason could be because they have lost their sense of identity to the job.

There are also some professional realities associated with the job.  The harmful effects of some of these things will vary from person to person, but here are some of the most common professional realities:

  • People working in any of the uniformed services end up feeling as though they should be able to control the outcomes of the situations they respond to, and they end up “keeping score” and keeping a record of their wins and losses.  While some of the wins can be exhilarating, the losses can be devastating.
  • They also suffer from problems associated with things like sleep deprivation.  Study after study has been done to determine what the “best” shift schedule would be, but there is still a lot of disagreement on that subject.  No matter the duration of the shift, many people working in emergency services realize they have too much to do and not enough time to do it, and many times the stress of the job as well as some of their personal habits can make it difficult for them to get the sleep they need to be recharged and ready for the next day.
  • In many cases, the job also comes with a lot of public scrutiny and criticism.  No matter which service you work for, there will always be that.  Firefighters shouldn’t be going to the grocery store; they should be at the fire station.  Police officers need to stop hunting and killing innocent people.  There’s the ever-famous, “I pay your salary!”    And when one is injured or dies in the line of duty, we hear, “that’s what they signed up for.”  We could go on and on.  And to make matters worse, the government officials we work for will often take the side of the complaining public instead of standing by the public safety employees.

And we can’t end the discussion of the negative aspects of this culture without talking about some of the psychological realities, which include things like:

  • Personnel are taught to compartmentalize their experiences and to suppress their emotions.  Our research tells us that about 91% of first responders agree that the things they see on the job affect them emotionally, yet they don’t seek help in dealing with those emotions
  • Their sense of personal bravado, their self-confidence, and the sense of comradery within the culture reinforces what they have learned to do; hence, they continue to pack more trash into the trash can instead of emptying it when they need to.
  • We hear conflicting statements like: “We don’t need this stress stuff.”  “I just go home and have a drink and forget about it.”  “Suck it up, buttercup.”  “There must be something wrong with me.”  “I can take care of myself.”

This is Part 2 of a series of articles on Confronting the Issue of Suicide and we encourage you to visit again for more installments in this series. 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 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.

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