In the summer of 2004, I was a mere intern working in the CSI lab, hoping to learn more about my dream job. Fifteen years later, I can still vividly see the first dead body I saw, half his head missing, due to a gunshot wound from a .44 handgun. I still remember picking up pieces of skull from halfway across the apartment complex parking lot where it took place and placing it on his body. I can still see the blood running down the street to the drain as the fire department hosed the area down.
Seeing such traumatic events is not uncommon to law enforcement and first responders, but it has been and always will be extremely unnatural. There are few if any officers who have not seen or been involved in a call that has affected them for life. Some have seen much more than others.
No matter how many traumatic events an officer sees throughout their career, the images, sounds, and smells will be ingrained into them. Over time these events begin to affect an officer’s behavior on and off the job. The result, whether major or minor, becomes a form of PTSD. According to Psychology Today, almost 20% of officers have full blown PTSD, and another 30% have some symptoms, but not enough to be fully diagnosed.
The stigma around such trauma has made it difficult for officers to be willing to open up to the fact that they are not handling the stress and trauma easily. This is stress and trauma, mind you, that is totally normal and healthy given the sorts of experiences we have as first responders. The results are often tragic. The rate of police suicide is on the rise, in 2018 being the leading cause of officer deaths. Law enforcement officers are now 70% more likely to commit suicide than the general public.
Programs to assist officers within their departments have made a giant leap over the past several years. Peer support teams and EAP are becoming commonplace. These options have been an excellent addition to departments across the country, and yet some officers are unwilling to use them because they are unsure if what they share will not leak out to the department. Officers still fear repercussion should they come to the forefront and tell their employer, “I am suffering.” They fear being taken off the streets and placed on a desk job. They worry about loss of wages should they have to be off work, and they are concerned what may happen should they go through treatment, get cleared to go back to full duty, and become involved in a major incident.
Law enforcement officers are great about being there for each other when one of our own dies in the line of duty, however a general day to day check is highly unlikely. Those handling major trauma on a daily basis such as child abuse and sex crimes detectives, CSI, and those in patrol, should be checked at least once or twice a year to make sure they are handling what they have been involved with in a proper way.
PTSD is a frightening thing to deal with and at least at first most don’t realize they are suffering from such a problem. Someone recently told me it should not be called “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” but rather “Post Traumatic Stress Disease.” When people hear the word “disorder” it becomes a label. Disorder makes it seem like a person cannot function correctly, like something is wrong with their brain.
This is not contagious in the traditional sense. But because of the symptoms, it can affect an officer’s family, friends, and coworkers. Anger, insomnia/nightmares, anxiety, and illness due to stress are just a few of the issues that an officer suffering from PTSD may deal with. It may creep up on an officer over years of seeing traumatic events, or it may be one horrific incident that causes a quick and extreme onset. Officers involved in critical incidents usually see an onset of PTSD within a three month period. Officers involved in an officer involved critical incident will usually be off work during that time for an investigation to be done. Being scrutinized over every detail of the incident as well as feelings of guilt or second-guessing how such an event was handled are a definite weight on an officer’s shoulders and stressor that can easily lead to the onset of PTSD.
State legislatures have begun to carry the torch to make sure that PTSD is now a covered medical condition under work comp. However, only about half of the states who have brought a bill to a legislature floor have passed.
Although at this time it is a state-by-state issue, PTSD is a nationwide issue. There are no departments in the United States that don’t have at least one officer dealing with some form of PTSD. We must do everything we can to bring PTSD to the forefront, build on the conversation, and make a commitment to help those suffering to slow the stem of suicides that are plaguing our profession. We should not be afraid to reach out to our department heads and our city officials to assist the officers in our respective departments.
We should also be willing to reach out to our state and national representatives and plead with them to make this an issue they are willing to fight for. It’s not a political issue, but a humanitarian one. Officers and first responders are willing to put their lives on the line every day for years and we should be doing whatever it takes to make sure that their wellbeing is an utmost concern.
During World War I, the term “shell shock” was first used to explain what soldiers were going through when they were suffering from PTSD. The term then became “battle fatigue” during World War II. By Vietnam it was changed to “operational exhaustion,” and eventually that led to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The comedian George Carlin stated, “Perhaps, if it was still called ‘Shell Shock’ we would be more sympathetic to what people are going through, and they would be receiving the treatment they need.” No matter how much the language is softened, the suffering is real.
Never be afraid to ask an officer how they are doing, or if they are okay. We are always great to reach out to officers shortly after an incident occurs, but how often does someone continue to reach out, 3 months, 6 months, or a year down the line. We all go back about our lives and seem to think they will go back about theirs with no lingering issues. We cannot allow first responder suicides to continue at the rate they are. It is time to fight as hard for our brothers and sisters after the fight as we do during the fight.