Dr. Carrie Steiner
Suffering In Silence
Officers are taught from the Academy and learn every day on the street, how to maintain professionalism and not show their emotions while they are policing. In fact, officers get so good at this, many of our families complain that we are not sensitive anymore. Officers often mask their emotions so well; even other officers do not know they are having emotional issues or thinking of suicide.
Today, however, there are so many additional stressors for Chicago police officers due to the Illinois police reform bill, threat of loss of qualified immunity, consistent protests, days off canceled, working 12-hour days, and the lack of support from some politicians and community members, it is getting exceedingly hard for officers to constantly hide their emotions and squash their feelings about how law enforcement is being treated today.
Due to the lack of support from so many people, it is normal for officers to feel it is getting hard, if not impossible, to not have some feelings of anger, anxiety, hopelessness, and depression. It is also getting difficult for officers to not display some of their feelings or to have their feelings “leak out” at home or at work, which can cause negative outcomes. This is why it is extremely important for officers to be using their resiliency skills and seek therapy if needed. Further, it is getting quite common for officers to question their decision to stay in the job, question their decision-making on the street, and instead of wondering what lawful during an arrest or use of force, questioning is more “how might this look”, which is a huge officer safety issue and adds to officers’ overall stress.
In fact, after a critical incident or newsworthy story, Officers are often encouraged or told outright to say nothing to anyone including other officers, the public and their family. So ultimately, officers are being told that ‘suffer in silence’ due to potential “legal issues” rather than find ways officers can safely get emotional support. While every officer understands of what legally can be shared with others, not being able to share your personal emotions often leads to three significant issues: 1) officers feel they have no voice to stand up for themselves or their police career, 2) officers and sometimes uninformed lawyers, think that that an officer cannot reach out to a therapist as they will not have confidentiality, and 3) the officer will experience mental health issues and will not seek treatment. Each of these issues can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, which both can lead to symptoms of depression and thoughts of suicide. While we would like to think that depression and thoughts of suicide are rare in policing, they are not, and we need to talk about it as not talking about it leads to officers choosing to do nothing or abusing substances which leads to more problems or the worst outcome suicide.
Depression and suicidal thinking is more common than once thought in policing. In a recent 2020 study of Dallas Texas police officers, 24% of the officers had positive screenings for a mental health issue (Jetelina, et al, 2020). Of note is that 12% of the members admitted to having a mental health issue during their life but only 17% had reached out for help. In this study Dallas officers continue to report 4 barriers to seeking treatment which are: 1) inability to identify when they are experiencing a mental illness, (2) concerns about confidentiality, (3) belief that psychologists cannot relate to their occupation, and (4) stigma that officers who seek mental health services are not fit for duty.
To help officers feel that they have more of a voice and can manage their feelings officers should consider the following:
· Write to your congressman and politicians as a citizen to share what you would like them to support politically. Remember if each officer in the state of Illinois wrote to their politicians that would account for approximately 1 million letters. You do make a difference.
· Get involved in community programs that support your views and beliefs.
· Take time away from social media and the news or give yourself scheduled time or a specific amount of time to get your news.
· Find fun in your life, exercise and eat healthy meals.
· Prioritize sleep as a lack of sleep can increase mental health issues.
· Find a licensed therapist who specializes in law enforcement and is bound to hold your confidentiality. Remember therapists have to maintain confidentiality or they can lose their license.
· Get the facts about confidentiality and the ability of a lawyer to subpoena your psychological records. Although officers often feel that it is easy to do, it is not. The First Responders Wellness Center have seen officers for over 11 years and have never been subpoenaed for progress notes regarding a shooting despite seeing many officers who have been in an OIS.
· Remember officers in general are some of the most resilient people, that is how you became the police and passed all of those tests, so if you are experiencing some anxiety, depression, or other mental health symptoms, 1) it is normal---studies show ¼ of officers are experiencing mental health issues, 2) evidenced based therapy helps, 3) in therapy, you should have goals and develop coping skills for success not just talk, and 4) you will likely recover because you have been resilient and treatment works.
Do not suffer in silence, put effort into yourself just like you do others! It is time to take care of you!
References: Jetelina, L, et al (2020). Prevalence of Mental Illness and Mental Health Care Use Among Police Officers, JAMA NetworkOpen 3, (10).