The daily traumas of police work can not only injure an officer’s brain, causing post-traumatic stress and a host of other crippling psychological and emotional wounds, but work traumas can kill them. Suicide is consistently the number one cause of death for police officers every year, more than all the other causes of death combined. The good news is that as an injury, these traumatic, invisible wounds can heal.
The safety and well-being of any community are intrinsically linked to the health and wellness of the officers serving it. Officers suffering from traumas while working for an agency that does not proactively cultivate a culture of support and wellness are incapable of providing the most ethical, professional service the community demands and deserves.
What is trauma?
Trauma is any experience that has the potential to significantly affect an officer in a debilitating way over a long period of time — and police officers and dispatchers have those experiences nearly every workday. An officer does not have to be involved in a shooting or anything horrific to suffer. The vast majority of officers and dispatchers suffering from debilitating traumas were just doing what is asked of them every day.
No officer is invincible from suffering from the repeated assaults upon their spirit from the traumas of police work: constant exposure to violence, suffering, danger and victimization; suicides; senseless deaths; unforgettable child molests and brutal sexual assaults, as well as being verbally and physically assaulted.
These traumas devastate the police profession with nearly 20% suffering from post-traumatic stress, 25–30% suffering from a serious stressed-based health crisis, 20% suffering from addictions, twice as many officers becoming alcoholics as the general population, as well as higher rates of depression.
The effects of trauma
The daily traumas of police work often turn officers into someone their loved ones no longer recognize — eventually, someone the officers themselves no longer recognize. Trauma is not only poisonous, but cumulative. If officers are not proactively practicing wellness strategies each day to counteract the cancerous effects of trauma, their mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health are increasingly vulnerable to suffer.
I have trained more than 7,000 police officers in 32 states and Canada regarding trauma and wellness, and I have yet to find one who does not readily admit that they are not the same person they were when they got hired. Police work often affects their ability to maintain close, meaningful relationships; it adversely affects their sleep and their health; it affects their view of people; it alters how they think and feel and often, it devastates their quality of life.
Officers’ work traumas can often leave them feeling emotionally dead or numb, unable to connect or relate to people, unable to effectively communicate, isolated, detached from others, uninvolved, disinterested and disengaged with life. Over the years, they often become bitter, uncaring, jaded, calloused, cynical, frustrated and extremely negative. All this leads to burnout, depression, a lack of motivation and a decreased ability to provide compassionate, helpful and professional service to make a meaningful difference.
When asked how the job has affected him, an officer in Southern California shared that he now has to make a conscious effort to force himself to be nice to his 7-year-old son. He said he has to always remind himself that the boy is not a crook. He said, “It doesn’t come natural to me to be nice to him anymore, or to anyone else.” Police traumas not only affect the officers, but their spouses and children as well.
How trauma injures the brain
A part of our brain functions by processing every experience we have, putting it into its proper perspective and making sense of it, then filing the experience away in our memory. The cumulative effects of trauma can build up to the point where this processing ability becomes overburdened, unable to function normally. That’s the injury, and the varied symptoms described above then begin to manifest.
We all have three main components to our brain, all of which are affected by trauma. The primitive part activates in fight or flight (or freeze) situations. The layer of the brain outside the primitive deals with emotions, relating to people, feelings and communication. The third layer deals with reason, logic, focus, thinking clearly and rationality.
When either one critical incident or an accumulation of traumas overburdens the processing part of the brain and affects the other components, the primitive aspect tends to overreact all the time. The officer feels like he or she is in a fight or flight situation — a fight for their life — with all the associated fears, terror, panic and emotions, even though they’re just sitting at home alone watching TV.
The part of the brain associated with emotions tends to shut down and not function. An officer so affected will tend to feel dead or numb inside, unable to feel or care, unable to express themselves or communicate. They will tend to have varied, wild emotions they’ve never experienced before, including anger, a short fuse, depression and extreme anxiety.
The part of the brain associated with reason also shuts down. Officers affected then become unable to focus, concentrate or think clearly, and their minds wander and have minds of their own. Also, they can become quite irrational in their thinking and behavior. They may have intrusive thoughts that are uncontrollable, and they may relive things over and over.
One cannot outlast the symptoms of trauma; they do not tend to just go away over time. They tend not to get better even with treating the symptoms, unless the underlying trauma is treated and healed. Once the traumas are courageously faced by telling someone you trust, “Something’s going on inside I don’t like, I might need some help,” then the healing process can begin.
No matter how severe the symptoms, a trauma-injured brain can be healed with most, if not all, of the brain’s normal functioning restored. At the very least, the brain can be healed to the point of an officer being able to manage their symptoms and life.
There are several professional treatments for trauma injuries. In my opinion, the most powerfully effective and longest lasting is called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which I have had. It is endorsed by the World Health Organization and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The lifesaving treatment of EMDR will be covered in an upcoming issue of American Police Beat.
Ways to counteract trauma
It’s imperative for officers and dispatchers to develop their own wellness program where they daily practice proactive wellness initiatives to strengthen resiliency and maintain fitness of body, mind, emotions and spirit. They can no longer just hope for the best because each day they do not practice and reinforce wellness, their work traumas are deteriorating their quality of life.
One of the most effective ways to prevent many of the debilitating effects of trauma is to always remember the nobility of police work and to remain driven by heart-centered service to be the good amid all the bad. The number one lesson I learned more than anything else in 30 years of law enforcement is that police work truly is a vocation of the heart and that our heart has a tremendous healing capacity. Officers protect and give life to others by selflessly serving our country, our community and those who need us. If an officer is not driven by their heart to make a meaningful difference every day in their agency, with their colleagues, within the community with every call for service — then the job is going to eat them alive.
In order to prevent their heart from suffocating from all the terrible things they experience, officers must first put their compassionate heart into everything they do to try to make things better — to be helpful and useful — to create and do as much good as they can. Being purposeful in doing as much good as possible with a giving heart tends to erase much past trauma.
As Albert Schweitzer, one of the greatest humanitarians of the 20th century said, “The purpose of life is to serve and to do good, to have the will and compassion to help others. And the only ones among us who will be truly happy are those who have found how to serve.” That’s not only the purpose of life, but the purpose of the police profession. When our officers become disconnected from that essential purpose, they become extremely vulnerable to suffer from the traumas of their beloved profession.
Captain Dan Willis (ret.) served for 30 years with the La Mesa Police Department and now is an international instructor on police trauma and ways to heal (www. FirstResponderWellness.com). He is the author of the emotional survival and wellness guidebook Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responders Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart, which is required reading at the FBI National Academy.