Since 2018 marked the 2nd year where police suicides outnumbered line of duty deaths, more and more people are starting to talk about the mental health of our law enforcement officers.
People have been discussing repetitive, cumulative PTSD as the culprit, and really, it’s so much more than that. My discovery and research of Law Enforcement Distress Syndrome (LEDS) is aimed at improving the mental health and quality of life of our cops.
I’m one of many voices coming through this year opening a much needed dialogue about the health and wellness of our law enforcement officers.
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NEVER TOO OLD TO LEARN
At 42-years-old, I’ve only recently learned the true meaning of empathy. I thought empathy was trying to understand the experience of what someone else is going through. In her book “Dare to Lead,” Dr. Brené Brown teaches that empathy isn’t really about connecting with someone else’s experiences, it’s more about connecting with someone’s FEELINGS.
That’s what I’m asking of you today: try your best. Keep an open mind and heart, so you can connect to how it would feel to experience the emotions I’m going to describe. I will walk you through the EVERYDAY experiences of many of our police officers.
Despite the fact that our storylines are different (storylines being what’s happening in our individual lives that brings an emotional response). We all know what it’s like to experience pain, sadness, or rejection. In other words, the experience of sadness is something we can all relate to.
Now, let’s imagine for a moment that for 40+ hours a week, your job is to respond to awful things that have happened in your community.
- Imagine: You go to a house after it’s been broken into. You tour the residence with the homeowner as they discover item upon item that was taken from them. You watch them sob when they think about their mother’s wedding ring which has been in the family for generations. It was stolen and now it’s gone. You watch as they attempt to process how they are going to deal with no longer feeling safe in their own home.
- Imagine: You are dispatched to call after call where people have had their car stolen or broken into. There were cars which were left running, valuables left in plain sight or sometimes none of the above. It was just rotten luck.
- Imagine: Each night in America, hundreds of thousands of couples are having a wonderful, loving evening. They are snuggled up in each other’s arms. But, you talk to none of those people. The couples you meet are fighting. Often, one of them has physically hurt the other, sometimes very badly.
- Imagine: All the millions of babysitting jobs every day that are handled without a hitch. Yet the one you went to ended when the nanny put a pillow over the baby’s face to stop her from crying. Now that helpless child is dead.
- Imagine: All of the people on romantic dates on any given night. Some promising and others not so much. Yet, the date you responded to ended up with the woman being held against her will and raped after she tried to say “No!”
- Imagine: Covering the ambulance on tons of different accidents. Yet, you remember where someone had fallen from a ladder while putting up Christmas lights, another man had a 7-inch shard of wood shoot back from a table saw and stick in his eye and other people were just going to the store when they were hit by a drunk driver. Day after day, you see people who were hit by a train, bus or a car while going about their daily business.
- Imagine: Day in and day out, most every person you talk to has been victimized in some way. They were impersonated, assaulted, robbed, stabbed or shot. Some of them were so depressed they killed themselves. I remember a young teen who did it in his own backyard with a shotgun to his head. He was later found by his mother.
Now. These experiences are emotionally charged and often terribly graphic. What effect do you think all of these negative experiences would have on YOU as a police officer after one year? After five years? What about ten years or more? How do you expect would this change you as a person?
I want you to imagine being anxious, overly vigilant and fearful that whatever you’re about to do could go wrong. I want you to imagine that your expectations of that happening is far greater than it actually is. I want you to imagine starting to distrust others.
I want you to imagine beginning to isolate yourself because you think it will protect you and keep you safe. You believe that isolation will reduce the anxiety you are constantly feeling. I want you to imagine being paranoid, distrustful and anxious all the time. I want you to imagine that mental state leading into depression. In really bad cases, what if you turned to alcohol, drugs, or even thoughts or attempts of suicide?
2018 marks the second straight year in a row where police suicides outnumbered line of duty deaths, according to data from Blue H.E.L.P and the Officer Down Memorial Page. 140 police officers and 103 firefighters committed suicide, whereas 129 officers and 93 firefighters died in the line of duty caused by an accident or the attacking hands of another.
HEAR NO EVIL, SEE NO EVIL, SPEAK NO EVIL …
There is very little dialogue about this issue. There are several obstacles which are hampering the discussion on preventing a repeat of these horrible statistics.
I want you to imagine experiencing these feelings and symptoms – then, not being able to talk about them. Why wouldn’t you talk about them?
First, many police officers are worried that asking for help could trigger a cycle where they are re-evaluated regarding their fitness for duty. They worry they could end up suspended, fired or on “special assignment” (often referred to as the “rubber gun squad”).
You would lack the ability to return to your regular assignment. The bottom line question is this: Would you be willing to risk losing your livelihood by just asking for help? While the help would bring relief, you might lose the ability to protect and provide for your family.
There is also the stigma associated with depression and mental health issues.
Another obstacle hampering the discussion about mental health is the perception that segments of the public, the media, and even their agency do not support police officers.
My research shows 90% of cops believe the media is against them.
94% believe that the public doesn’t understand their job of police officer.
Last, only 52% of responding LEOs believe their agency supports them.
Perhaps worst of all, 53% of cops believe they CANNOT talk to their own family about work.
So, these feelings of hypervigilance, revenge or vengeance paranoia, anti-social behavior, distrust of others, depression and anxiety are real. Yet, many judge they need to handle them on their own. Obviously, not all of them are equipped to go it alone.
Psychologically speaking, what is happening inside the minds of our police officers?
ARE THEY PAINTED INTO A CORNER?
Certainly, some are affected by PTSD which can result after witnessing or experiencing a terrifying event. There are many additional symptoms which can accompany PTSD: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions.
Without question, PTSD is an issue for law enforcement and in particular, those who have been through or witnessed a critical incident. In fact, PTSD in first responders is five times more frequent than in civilians. Yet, there is very little being done to address this. As I said previously there is little dialogue about it.
Another issue, also with little discussion is what I’ve called Law Enforcement Distress Syndrome or LEDS. Unlike PTSD, which results from witnessing or experiencing ONE traumatic event, LEDS has a slow onset after responding repeatedly, day after day, to MULTIPLE traumatic events. I believe LEDs is having a disparaging impact on the quality of life and wellness of law enforcement officers on a widespread basis.
LEDS, at its core, is experiencing and/or witnessing day after day horrible events which SLOWLY convinces a person that these things happening at a much greater frequency that they actually are.
Symptoms of LEDS include:
- Revenge / Vengeance paranoia
- Anti-social behavior
- Distrust of others and their motivations
- Chronic fear caused by fatalistic thinking
- Adrenaline addiction
- Depression and suicidal thoughts
- Occasional cases alcohol or substance abuse issues
To read more about LEDS, head to my website at www.stevewarneke.com. So far my research so far has only included former and current law enforcement, but it may very well extend to all first responders.
For now, let me share with you some excerpts from some of the people who have contacted me in what has been an overwhelming response to my writing and research:
- One person writes to me, “I feel like I’m stuck in a maze and cannot find my way out to figure out who I am supposed to be now.”
- Another writes that after she saw a coworker murdered, she had to get out of the job. She said “LEDs describes my daily life to a T.”
- Another former officer wrote, “You put into words exactly what I have been going through.” He ended his note saying “I’m 50 now and it’s getting worse as I age.”
And even some who contacted me are experiencing more severe symptoms of LEDS, One person writes to me:
“I have exiled myself from most of my lifelong friends and even family members (outside wife and children). I have about a 30-minute limit to comfort even in family gatherings which will result in me having to leave or seclude myself if at home during any gathering.”
Here’s another officer’s email to me, “I don’t ever want to ever go out in public while off-duty. When I am home, and it’s time to go to bed, I check the doors several times. I always make sure my gun and my body are positioned properly to defend a home invasion.”
He continues, “If I hear any unknown noise. I’m up clearing the house. When my seven-year-old son is sleeping, I go into his room and check to make sure he’s breathing. I’ve seen so much death and evil, my mind always goes to the worst possible outcome.”
WHAT ARE THE OPTIONS?
The ultimate goal of my research is to try to find prevention, management, and treatment for those whose quality of life is adversely affected by the mental ramifications of doing this job. It’s a job might I add, which is brave and selfless.
Without the dedication of these brave men and women, our way of life as we know it would not be possible. We’ve seen examples after major disasters of just how close our country is to being terrorized. The would-be perpetrators are a small minority of criminals and anarchists who want to wreak havoc at the first opportunity.
That is why it is so important for us, the silent majority, to reach out and help the men and women who protect us.
WHAT DO WE DO NOW?
I want to leave you today on a positive note.
The first step in helping to improve the quality of lives of our first responders is this: The media and general public must start understanding the emotional reactions our first responders are having that are caused by the jobs they do.
To our first responders, there is hope for those of you are struggling. That is the nearly 47% of you whom I’ve surveyed who’ve report they feel more depressed since becoming a police officer.
I have found several promising methods to manage and treat LEDS since beginning my work.
- In addition to traditional counseling and mental health work, there are now ministries dedicated just to helping cops.
- There are non-profits that are starting up, that are dedicated exclusively to law enforcement. That way, they don’t end up in the bed next to the person they just dealt with at work.
- There are also support groups, mindfulness practice as one Oregon lieutenant is teaching.
- The one I’m most excited about (because I’m a dog-lover) is the potential to use actual service animals!
Former and current law enforcement: I still need your help. If you haven’t already, please take my 15-minute survey at www.stevewarneke.com.
For the mass public: Your police officers need your love and support. Beginning to connect with empathy is that first step. Your openness and compassion will speak volumes.
Learning more about doing their job is important as well. I do that in my book, “From Boy To Blue,” which is available at www.stevewarneke.com.
A percentage of the proceeds is funding my research and efforts.
– Steve Warneke
At the bottom line, it’s all about saving just ONE life.
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Thank you for taking the time to read this message and allowing us to share this touching story with you. Our editor can be contacted via email with questions or input: Email Editor