Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, for short, is a mental health condition triggered by particularly distressing events.
People who are impacted by this condition may experience a broad spectrum of symptoms, including distressing memories of the event, avoidance of all reminders of the event, and physiological and emotional difficulties.
PTSD is most-often associated with people serving in the military. For this reason, the majority of what people think of as PTSD is what they hear or learn from the experiences of soldiers and those in the military.
However, PTSD is common among police officers and continues to have an impact on their lives and the lives of their families. Additionally, PTSD experienced by law enforcement officers is unique and different, compared to the disorder experienced by soldiers.
Whereas soldiers frequently develop PTSD as a result of a single or brief exposure to stress, PTSD among police officers tends to develop over time, as a result of multiple stress-related experiences, through a process commonly referred to as cumulative PTSD.
Addressing PTSD as a real problem among law enforcement officers is necessary to its mitigation and resolution. Similarly, being aware of some of the myths that surround PTSD in law enforcement will ensure an honest approach to combating this very real problem.
Myth 1: PTSD develops immediately following a traumatic event.
When someone goes through a traumatic experience, it is common to believe that if they will develop PTSD symptoms, they will do so quickly. This is not always the case, and some people may not exhibit PTSD symptoms for years.
Although PTSD symptoms typically appear three months after a traumatic event, some people may not experience any symptoms at all for years. For law enforcement officers, this problem might be compounded by the fact that they are experiencing cumulative PTSD.
Myth 2: Everyone who has PTSD has the same symptoms.
The diagnosis of PTSD includes a wide range of symptoms, and PTSD can manifest itself in a variety of ways. PTSD symptoms are classified into four groups according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. They are:
- Re-experiencing the trauma through thoughts and dreams
- Avoidance of thoughts or places related to the trauma
- Negative thoughts and mood, including illogical thoughts of why the trauma occurred
- Arousal symptoms, creating difficulty with sleeping or concentrating
Because each cluster includes a variety of symptoms, a person suffering from PTSD could have any combination of symptoms.
Myth 3: All law enforcement officers experience PTSD
While officers are exposed to traumatic events at alarmingly high rates when compared to the general population, trauma exposure does not always result in PTSD.
The truth is, as statistics show, that most police officers will not develop PTSD.
Myth 4: Law enforcement officers who have PTSD are weak
No amount of physical or mental fortitude can prevent the onset of PTSD. There is a widespread misconception that “tough” people handle things effortlessly and that nothing bothers them.
It is normal to feel distressed after a critical incident or traumatic event. Working through the discomfort, rather than pushing it away, is beneficial in reducing the long-term negative effects of a critical incident. This often begins with speaking with a trusted peer or participating in a critical incident stress debrief (CISD). It is important to note, however, that even when officers handle a difficult situation well, they can develop PTSD.
Avoiding rather than confronting our reactions to traumatic events is frequently a precursor to the development of PTSD.
Myth 5: PTSD makes someone violent
PTSD can be extremely distressing because people frequently relive their most traumatic experiences. People can cope with these stressful and difficult symptoms in a variety of ways. Some people may withdraw, or become restless, and a small percentage may act violently. There is a widespread misconception that people suffering from PTSD are violent or dangerous, but this is not always the case.
People with PTSD who become violent are in the minority, and violence is not listed as a symptom of PTSD.
Disregarding mental health care does not resolve the underlying problems, and often makes them harder to manage. Law enforcement agencies and officers should be aware of how PTSD can be developed and can manifest itself. Awareness, education, and support programs are necessary and need to be part of the mental and physical health care platforms available to officers.