Police Officers Must Protect Their Own Mental Health

I was a Police Officer in Wisconsin, for 21 years. In April, 2016, I was involved in a critical incident when I used deadly force against someone who armed themselves with a hatchet inside a busy department store.

I faced many personal and professional mental health challenges after my critical incident, and it has taken me many years to get back on track. I would not have been successful with my mental health without the unwavering support of my family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers.

The issue of mental health is prominent everywhere in the public safety profession and it is an issue that commands a new perspective.

So what is Stigma? According to the Webster’s New World Dictionary, the definition of Stigma is, “a mark of disgrace or reproach.” Public safety professionals who struggle with mental health issues often feel devalued and fearful because of the negative attitude society and others in their profession may have against them. As a result, public safety professionals struggling with mental health issues may not get the help they need for fear they’ll be discriminated against, or even worse, terminated.

The public safety profession is a high stress environment that has been associated with mental health issues. Public safety professionals who openly seek help for anxiety, depression, emotional disorders, or post-traumatic stress often face personal or professional criticism, discrimination, and sometimes termination. This should not deter them from seeking help, but it does. We need to work together to stop the stigma.

Public safety professionals may choose to treat their mental health issues with poor coping strategies such as excessive consumption of alcohol, drug abuse, casual sex, and other risky behavior. These strategies are self-destructive and tend to cause more stress, anxiety, and depression. In worst cases, these strategies may become criminal.

One of my many poor coping strategies was abusing alcohol. Prior to my critical incident I collected wine and enjoyed a glass of wine every now and then. However, after my critical incident I began abusing liquor, mainly whiskey and the cheapest vodka I could get my hands on. I would consume whiskey and vodka straight from their bottles, on the rocks, or I’d create my own cocktails by combining over the counter liquid sleeping or liquid allergy medicines.

I remember one instance when my oldest daughter had leftover prescribed liquid cough medicine containing codeine. I combined whatever was remining in the bottle with a glass of wine. Abusing alcohol may have been a quick fix, but it caused me even more stress, anxiety, and depression.

Another way I dangerously coped was drinking and driving. Prior to attending any type of social event, even as simple as going to the grocery store, I would consume alcohol. I would travel to a nearby gas station and purchase many small bottles of liquor containing about 1.5 ounces of whiskey, vodka or whatever I could afford at the time. I would immediately consume the alcohol in my vehicle prior to travelling to my destination. I tossed the empty bottles in the back of my vehicle or out the window while I was driving.

My duty weapon during my critical incident was a Glock 22 Gen 4 – 40 Caliber. I put my duty weapon to my head at least a dozen times. Sometimes I even placed the barrel in my mouth. I would always remove the magazine, but for those of you who are not familiar with a Glock, if you don’t rack the slide and remove the round from the chamber (barrel) it will still discharge a round. I very easily could have accidentally killed myself.

I also used casual sex to distract myself from my emotional discomfort and pain. But, it doesn’t have to be this way for police officers who are suffering from mental health disorders.

To overcome the mental health stigma in the public safety profession it is important that those public safety professionals who suffer from mental health issues learn to understand, accept, and determine what is needed to treat it. It is time to become a part of the solution and work with those suffering to make mental health issues stigma free.

Public safety leaders must take a helpful approach when anyone in their command is struggling from mental health issues. Leaders should establish peer support groups and actively participate in them.

Public safety professionals need to be able to trust the leaders and colleagues of their departments to recognize the obstacles and stigmas associated with mental health. They need to feel comfortable and confident that if they are involved in a critical incident and later struggle with mental health issues from the incident, that help will be available with no strings attached. Because, ultimately, mental illness is a medical disorder and not a character flaw or a sign of personal or professional weakness.