Blue Line


September 2, 2014  By Stephanie Conn

More police officers suffer from depression than post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite the prevalence, there appears to be a hesitancy to accept this medical condition as legitimate.

After all, police who suffer appear to have nothing to be depressed about. They have their jobs, family, friends, money and their health. This line of thinking only compounds the angst and shame officers feel. They know that they oftentimes don’t have these reasons yet they still experience depression. My hope for this column is that I can deconstruct some myths.

All of the officers I have worked with have been human beings and are susceptible to human experiences such as depression and anxiety. Statistics show that one in four people will experience a mental health issue so it only stands to reason that police will also suffer from mental health issues.

Some research has even shown that officers have higher rates of depression than the general population. <1> Yes, pre-employment screening might reduce the chance that a person currently experiencing depression will be hired but it is no assurance that they will never experience depression. That is like saying that we passed the physical exam when hired so we should expect to never develop any health problems. This logic is ludicrous, right?

The stigma of depression adds insult to injury. Some believe that being depressed means that you are weak; that you can’t handle the job. I don’t think I’ve heard an oversimplification so brutally unfair. First, depression is a medical condition that is genetically inherited. Second, this inherited gene interacts with the person’s environment to produce (or not produce) depressive thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

Beyond the inheritance of depressive genes, there are many other factors involved in producing depression such as thyroid levels, sleep deprivation, side effects of many medications and exposure to light (or lack thereof on night shift). None of these sound like character flaws or weaknesses to me.

Let’s consider the typical police environment. Every day officers are called to deal with negative events and be in contact with negative people. When they have a genetic predisposition to depression and are chronically exposed to negative events and people, it is to be expected that depression will occur. It doesn’t mean that it will be permanent, nor does it imply that it will be so severe that they cannot continue working. It simply means that they will have to seek treatment for the chemical imbalance that occurs.

Even without a genetic predisposition to depression, chronic exposure to negative events can shift a police officer’s positive worldview to a negative one. A large-scale study has shown that 70 per cent of officers working in high stress environments reported depressive symptoms. <2>

There are many names for this occurrence and just as many theories to explain it, including vicarious traumatization, burnout, cynicism and moral distress. Whatever name you use, depressive thoughts, feelings and behaviours oftentimes accompany each of these.

It is hard to imagine that the world is a positive place when you are only ever called to deal with it when it is not. Police see the worst in people and may lose their faith in mankind. I’d be depressed if I lost my faith in mankind.

The narrative in your head might sound something like this: “People treat people horribly. The world is going down the drain. I can’t do anything about it but I am expected to.” Does this sound familiar?

Organizational stressors are oftentimes the bigger culprit when it comes to an officers’ changing worldview. Policies, procedures, unsupportive supervisors or co-workers tend to worsen views of mankind even more than the “bad guys” do because officers don’t expect to face so many organizational hassles.

The way forward is to challenge the negative thoughts in your head because they are also oversimplifications of reality. Not all people treat each other horribly. In fact, if you look for it, many people are often kind and generous.

You may have to look for examples outside of your work to improve your chances of finding them, but it is worth the effort. This may be especially difficult because once a person is struggling with depression, there is a tendency to withdraw from others. Knowing this tendency can help challenge you to broaden your worldview by spending time in your personal life looking for the good in people.

Find your purpose outside of work and you will find a way to feel you are making a difference – and more examples that the world is not going down the drain.

<1> Violanti, J.M. & Drylie, J.J. (2008). <Cop-i-cide: Concepts, Cases and Controversies of
Suicide by Cop.> Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

<2> Gershon, R. R. M., Barocas, B., Canton, A., Li, X., & Vlahov, D. (2009). <Mental, physical,
and behavioral outcomes associated with perceived work stress in police officers.> Criminal Justice and Behavior, 36(3), 275-289. DOI: 10.1177/0093854808330015.

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