“Each night it was necessary for Mike to decompress, and I saw it as my job to be available and to listen and do whatever he needed. He would continue to literally fall asleep talking. When Mike started yelling in his sleep, I could tell he was reliving the incident… A few weeks after the shooting, he came home and was pacing and absolutely agitated beyond agitated. He was concerned about his officers committing suicide.”
The words come directly from the letters of Lori Kehoe, whose husband Mike was the police chief in Newtown in 2012 when a deranged man shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 children and six educators before turning the gun on himself.
For many of the other officers tasked with responding to the heinous scene, the wounds and trauma are still fresh. Officer William Chapman, who made it to the scene in under three minutes after the first 911 call, recalled to The New York Times in 2013 cradling an injured child inside one of the classrooms, telling her, “You’re safe now. Your parents love you.” The child did not survive.
Many of the officers could not return to work. Some were diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Several officers recalled reliving the nightmare in their sleep, waking suddenly in a cold sweat, screaming. How do you cope with the unimaginable? How can any sort of job training prepare you for horrendous, lifeless scenes? It can’t. Nothing can.
My own father has been a detective for 23 years in southern Connecticut. Despite being on the job for several years, there are scenes to this day he will never forget. Helping a man gravely injured in a car accident make a phone call to his wife before taking his last breath. Witnessing a suicide. A suspect dragging him on the side of his cruiser before launching him in a ditch, leaving him badly wounded.
In 2010, Daniel Mattos, a law enforcement officer who had been on the job for more than 30 years, wrote about the accumulating mental strain on police officers after responding to difficult situations and horrid crimes in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.
“By the very nature of what we do as police officers, we are unavoidably exposed to a host of toxic elements that can be likened to grains of emotional sand that ever so gradually are placed on our psychological backs. As time goes on, the sand increases in volume,” Mattos wrote. “Without the proper tools to remove it, the weight can become unbearable. In fact, in some cases, the sand becomes so heavy that it can collapse officers. The result of the sand’s weight takes a heavy toll on us; substance abuse, anxiety, depression, failed marriages and other emotional and physical ailments that rise well above societal averages plague our profession.”
These serious clinical problems often go unchecked due to a general stigma in the law enforcement regarding mental health and seeking therapy, leading to grave consequences. According to the American Police Officers Alliance, one in four police officers have considered committing suicide. Even more concerning: More police officers die by suicide yearly than in the line of duty.
“A lot of police officers fear that they will be unable to perform their duties if they are deemed to be mentally unhealthy,” the article read. “This potential varies depending on the state but it shouldn’t stop any police officer from getting the help that they need.”
A lot of police officers fear that they will be unable to perform their duties if they are deemed to be mentally unhealthy, This potential varies depending on the state but it shouldn’t stop any police officer from getting the help that they need.”
In January 2018, the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act (LEMHWA) was signed into law with the intention of providing mental health support and education to police officers. This year, the goal of the program is to fund projects related to peer support projects, larger support networks for smaller or more rural agencies and coordinators for each area to report to the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office, which is a subsection of the Department of Justice.
Despite these advances, many officers still feel terrified to open up and admit they need help, afraid of retribution by their departments or, worse, their higher-ups deeming them to be unfit to continue to serve when the evidence does not support that conclusion. (especially when an officer seeks help on their own accord for issues relating to trauma coping, etc.)
“Don’t be that police officer with that stigma who tells people to ‘suck it up.’ We all know who those guys are and those are the guys that probably need help the most. We are not robots. We’re human beings with emotions and feelings,” wrote Anthony Espada, a police officer in Cleveland who serves as a Peer Support Officer and advocate for mental health through NAMI. “The stuff we see and experience is not normal. If you want a long-lasting career, you have to take care of yourself—physically and mentally. That’s the only way this will work.”
Jaysyn Carson, who is the director of incident support services for the Fairfax, Virginia County Police Department, is working on helping departments instill confidence in their officers to ask for help without fear of retaliation or possibly losing their jobs. Officers undergo thorough evaluations based on individual circumstances before any action is taken regarding treatment options.
“If you take someone’s badge and gun, you take their dignity, you take their sense of purpose and their sense of belonging to a culture,” Carson told NBC News in 2019. “It’s like stripping them of their identity.”
Ignoring these monumental issues has negative effects on not only police officers but also the communities they serve, who often expect them to be constantly positive and robotic—void of emotion or expression of human tendencies.
“You just don’t want to feel those feelings, so you try to push them away. You have a job to do,” Carrie Steiner, a Chicago police officer, told HuffPost last September. “You get more cynical. You get more hypervigilant and untrusting — you start to feel that more people are doing bad things to each other than good things to each other.”
“You just don’t want to feel those feelings, so you try to push them away. You have a job to do.”
Steiner is the creator of the First Responders Wellness Center, which she created after watching many of her colleagues struggle with substance abuse and depression after traumatic instances on the job. Located in Lombard, Illinois, the center is designated as a safe place officers can go to talk openly about their trauma. Steiner, who obtained her license to practice psychology a few years back, helps teach each officer coping techniques to use on the job to improve their mental resilience.
Blue H.E.L.P., another organization created to support the mental health of police officers, has several resources available for officers who are struggling. The COPLINE, a hotline bearing the number 1-800-267-5463, connects officers with other retired officers who serve as peer support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Still, many departments do not have these resources immediately available, and lack the means necessary to start these necessary conversations.
“Moving forward, we need to bring more awareness to the mental health of police officers. Departments all over the country are starting to talk about mental health, bring awareness to the mental health of their officers and build programs to support their officers,” the article on the APOA website read. “It is our hope that these efforts continue to grow and all officers across the country get the help they need, if and when they need it.”