Public Safety Psychological Health
By Debra Ann Faretra, M.A.

Mental Health is a scary and taboo term that can cause quite a stir in the law enforcement profession. What causes people to frown upon matters of the mind, but not matters of the body? Perhaps how society views mental health and how members of public safety are required to be pillars of stone through all of the storms.

Law enforcement psychological health differs from the rest of the population due to the dynamics surrounding the profession. Psychological wounds are sustained in the line of duty and are part of the occupational hazards, but yet, mostly everyone pretends that they don’t exist. It’s important to separate public safety mental health from the general public’s mental health situations. They differ immensely in their characteristics and although all are human and mental health is under its own umbrella, police officers are in a league of their own.

Manifestations of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more prevalent these days due to the nature of crimes that the American Police Officer combats. America is a different place and time now that is similar to warlike environments. Traumatic incidents are occurring with frequency across the United States and infect the minds of the police community as a whole. Police take the brunt of most of the atrocities by the changing criminal behavior and activities. In fact, law enforcement roles and mentalities today are similar to military soldiers and with that comes a greater level of responsibility, stress, and risk for psychological wounds and even death. They will be affected by this in one way or another unless these situations are appropriately maintained.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can manifest itself months or many years after a traumatic event. Its onset can occur after a distressful and life threatening situation where there was an element of fear of death, witnessing death and injuries during mass shootings, terroristic attacks, accidents, shootings, and natural disasters.

Life flashes before the eyes and overwhelming anxiety can occur thereafter. The tragedy seen with others can be internalized by the first responder and cause hypervigiliance or abnormally decreased responses as a form of numbing. Long after the trauma, the mind and body may still be in fight, flight, or freeze mode which can cause an elevation in unhealthy neurotransmitter activity. Like a domino effect, each can affect other areas of functioning.

Panic attacks can occur in correlation to or as a result of untreated PTSD, imbalance of brain chemicals as a result of seasonal changes, sleep deprivation, poor diet, substances, and stress. All of these things are normal responses to serious situations but many times they don’t subside too easily. It’s important to go through the healing channels.

Untreated psychological wounds can spiral into debilitating symptoms and ultimately suicide. Unfortunately, many police officers and firefighters suffer silently with psychological injuries and may not realize what exactly they are feeling; they just know something is wrong. It’s easy for the mind to become barricaded and held hostage by painful thoughts. It can cause a person to feel unstable and scared with nowhere to turn.

It’s understood that those who seek mental health may come under scrutiny from their departments. Officers may be pressured to disclose their treatment and risk becoming a target of an internal investigation and further psychological testing, which would only exacerbate their stress. So what is the solution one might wonder? Damned if you do and damned if you don’t!

Seek assistance from trusted union representatives that will appropriately advise of departmental rules and policies. Police unions need to be comprised of members that are exclusive to the interests of their peers. Administrators should stay clear from union affairs to respect the differences between subordinates. In some cases, how is an officer to complain of their needs to a room full of people that may contribute to their stress? Each officer needs to be able to rely on their union representatives in times of need due to the collective stress of the job.

Blue friendly mental health professionals should be relied on to assist in psychological healing. If people aren’t comfortable using their insurance plans, then perhaps out of pocket expenses will need to be utilized for a short period of time to stabilize situations. Hotlines across the United States are available for peer to peer discussions during difficult times until comfort of professional psychological intervention is achieved.

A desensitization process is required through the assistance of not only a professional, but friends, family, and religious affiliations. Anxiety disorders have a high success rate for treatment and a person can resume their normal life activities once they begin their therapeutic journey that every American Hero deserves.

Psychological challenges that surround the law enforcement profession do not necessarily have to be advertised to the general public, but more work needs to be done interdepartmentally behind the scenes to assist with non bias and effective resources that officers can rely on in times of need.

No one’s health should be neglected or compromised in any profession. Precautionary measures are advised, but no one should ever feel alone.

Thank you all for your sacrifices and services, but please take care of yourselves too! Your life matters! Stay Safe and stay well!

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255

Debra Ann Faretra, M.A. is a Mental Health Public Safety Instructor offering in service training for police and fire. She is also the Principal Mental Health and Wellness Educational Consultant for Forensi Consulting, LLC in Essex County, New Jersey. She is educated in psychology, counseling, and police studies.