CUMULATIVE PTSD IN LAW ENFORCEMENT

Michelle L. Beshears

 Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on American  Military University’s blog, In Public Safety.  We are grateful that they  have permitted us to share it with our audience.

Even with all  we know about its effects and ways to treat it, post-traumatic stress  disorder (PTSD) is common among police officers and continues to take  its toll on their lives and those of their families.

Most of what  people think of as PTSD relates to trauma suffered by soldiers and  those in the military. However, police officers’ PTSD is different.  Soldiers often get PTSD from a single or brief exposure to stress.  However, for police officers PTSD tends to manifest over time, resulting  from multiple stress-related experiences. This is better known as  cumulative PTSD.

Understanding Cumulative PTSD

Cumulative  PTSD can be even more dangerous than PTSD caused from a single  traumatic event, largely because cumulative PTSD is more likely to go  unnoticed and untreated. When a catastrophic event occurs, such as an  officer-involved shooting, most departments have policies and  professionals to help an officer address and deal with the aftermath of  an event.

However, the build-up of events that arise throughout  an officer’s career generally do not warrant such specialized attention.  As a result, an officer with cumulative PTSD is less likely to receive  treatment. Unlike a physical injury, a mental traumatic injury can  happen almost daily. When the demon of PTSD surfaces it often goes  ignored. If untreated, officers can become a risk to themselves and  others.

Causes of PTSD

Numerous  events can cause PTSD in police officers, such as hostage situations,  dangerous drug busts, responding to fatal accidents, and working other  cases that include serious injury or death. But there are many less  traumatic situations that can still be extremely stressful for an  officer. Other stressful situations include, but are not limited to:  long hours; handling people’s attitudes; waiting for the next call and  not knowing what the situation will be; and even politics within the  department. Then, on top of it all, officers are frequently criticized,  scrutinized, and investigated for decisions they make.

[Related: The Impact of Stress and Fatigue on Police and Steps to Control It]

Signs of PTSD

If  recognized early and treated properly, officers and their families can  overcome the debilitating effects of cumulative PTSD. The key to early  intervention and treatment is recognizing the signs of PTSD and seeking  help sooner rather than later.

Some of the physical signs officers should look for in themselves include:

Fatigue
Vomiting or nausea
Chest pain
Twitches
Thirst
Insomnia or nightmares
Breathing difficulty
Grinding of teeth
Profuse sweating
Pounding heart
Diarrhea or intestinal upsets
Headaches

Behavioral signs family members of officers and officers should look for in themselves and in others include:

Withdrawal from family and friends
Pacing and restlessness
Emotional outbursts
Anti-social acts
Suspicion and paranoia
Increased alcohol consumption and other substance abuse

Emotional signs include:

Anxiety or panic
Guilt
Fear
Denial
Irritability
Depression
Intense anger
Agitation
Apprehension

The  situational training new recruits receive is simply not enough to  prepare them for the reality of the experiences they will face  throughout their careers. Most young officers do not understand the  stressful events they are likely to experience during their years on the  job. Many officers are also not adequately equipped with the emotional  tools necessary to deal with the emotions they will feel when things  happen.

However, awareness continues to grow about the stress and  trauma that officers’ experience. Organizations like the Station House  Retreat offer both inpatient and outpatient treatment trauma therapy and  peer-support services for police officers as well as all first  responders. They also offer addiction treatment for first responders,  and support for their family members.

About the  Author: Michelle L. Beshears earned her baccalaureate degrees in social  psychology and criminal justice and graduate degrees in human resource  development and criminology from Indiana State University. She most  recently completed her Ph.D. in Business Administration with a  specialization in Criminal Justice. Michelle served in the U.S. Army for  11 years. She obtained the rank of Staff Sergeant prior to attending  Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia where she earned her  commission. As a commissioned officer she led numerous criminal  investigations and worked with several external agencies as well. As a  civilian, she has worked with the local sheriff’s department, state drug  task force and FBI. Michelle is currently an assistant professor of  criminal justice at American Military University and is full-time  faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies. You can contact  her at Michelle.Beshears(at)mycampus.apus.edu. 

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