When you are a new police officer you get told many things. You learn the laws, how to answer calls, what to do in case this happens or that happens. But one thing they don’t cover enough is the mental health aspect of the job. Oddly enough, one of the first things I remember being told as a new police officer is, “This job will change you.”
Multiple times over and over I was told that eventually I would look at the world differently and I would change as a person. They were right. To be honest, if you didn’t change as a person after becoming a police officer, that would be concerning. Let me explain.
Once you become a police officer your entire purpose in life is helping people fix their problems. You respond to situations that are complete and utter chaos. No one calls the police just to say hello or say thank you. Furthermore, police officers are called to each and every horrific tragedy that takes place in your community from fatality car accidents, suicides, homicides, sex assaults, child abuse, you name it, they handle it all. Every. Single. Day.
Not every day is horrible. In fact, every once in a while, things seem to go really well, and no one fights you, hates you, spits on you, or hurls insults at you as you drive down the road. But then there are “those” days, those days every police officer has that honestly make you question whether the job is really worth doing. The days you respond to the most horrific scene that makes you sick to your stomach, want to cry, or make you so angry you can’t believe what you are seeing. Images of dead bodies or abused children that will be forever burned into your mind. But while you are there, you can’t show these emotions. You can’t cry or shout in anger. You have to be professional and treat it as a crime scene, or just objects if you will. This isn’t done out of disrespect to the people hurt or dead, it is done out of self-preservation as a human.
Police officers are human. They are fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters, just like everyone else. The emotions they feel while at these crime scenes are real but must be stifled while on-duty. They must remain professional and appear to be “strong” in order to get the job done or console a witness or victim of a crime. However, seeing the tragedy and horrific crime scenes take a toll and eventually you change as a person. You start to think everyone is a potential suspect or a bad person. You feel like there is only negative in the world. You become upset more easily or irritable and you aren’t sure why.
Add shift work, long days, and the overall stress of what is called “hyper awareness” during a shift to the mix and you have quite the recipe for changes in a person. Especially for someone who, before becoming a police officer, didn’t deal with dead bodies and irregular working conditions on a daily basis.
Ultimately, the fact that the people in the profession or in the academy have the foresight to warn you that “this job will change you” is great. The problem is, they fail to tell you how to deal with the changes in a healthy way. As I’ve said before, seeing and doing what police officers do on a regular basis is far from normal. Often times, it is downright awful and tragic. Those pent-up feelings or emotions have to go somewhere and unfortunately they don’t just fade away with time.
There is a reason that police officers are known for what I call “the big three” – alcohol abuse, divorce, and suicide. When there is a running joke in your profession that you aren’t a “real cop” until you’ve gone through your first divorce, I think it is safe to say that the issue is an epidemic within the profession. Unfortunately, due to the type of person it takes to be a police officer, most shrug it off and say, “It’s part of the job.”
So, what’s the solution? How do we do better? These are the important questions that need answering. I would start by saying we need to end the stigma of talking about the negative effects of being a police officer. Simply telling a recruit, “This job will change you,” isn’t enough. It is frustrating that police officers are aware of the mental health hazards that come with the job, yet only acknowledge them and don’t take any action on how to manage them.
Reach out. Talk. Discuss. Find hobbies or hang out with friends that are not police officers. Do ANYTHING but ignore the fact that as police officers, we deal with very difficult things on a daily basis, physically, mentally, and visually. It would take a toll on anyone, so don’t think you’re immune or weak for admitting the truth. The job WILL change you. Be prepared, have a plan, and be safe.
The Officer Next Door