The thin blue line: stress and policing
Recent BBC reporting has identified an increase of 35% in psychological difficulties experienced by police staff over the last five years. While those entering such work will be aware of the many, often-unique demands that such a career will make upon them, something must have changed to have brought this increase about? A statement from the Police Federation concludes that the current increase in ‘sick leave’ is a consequence of increasing demand, upon reducing staff numbers and resources in what will always be a stressful area of work – the ‘perfect storm’. What then can police employees do to safeguard their own mental health, whilst continuing to carry out this important and challenging work?
My work as a therapist has shown that high levels of stress and mental ill health are to be found throughout the public sector. All share the ongoing resource issues, but police work seems to result in a unique set of stressors that may be combining to explain these increasing levels. Recognition of, and understanding and empathy for, the challenges of the work setting increases the likelihood that personal will feel supported in addressing emerging difficulties, thus promoting their own well-being or recovery. While many of the work-based factors cannot be changed, therapeutic input can improve the mental health of those experiencing or are at risk of, psychological deterioration in the following ways.
Firstly, be knowing and trustful of yourself, your family and close friends. Develop an awareness of your ‘normal’ now, so that should there be any variation from that, you will be open to exploring it further. Consider, if this were ‘a lump’, would you ignore it in the hope that it just goes away? Through your work you are aware that bad things happen to good people. You will also know of colleagues that have experienced mental health difficulties. Monitor yourself, be kind to yourself, trust those you love and choose to seek help sooner rather than later.
In my experience, the most helpful interventions for mental distress are face to face meetings with a trusted, ‘neutral’ and external professional. In this confidential space you can verbalise and explore your inner discord with less guilt, embarrassment or shame. Dwelling on complex personal issues without support will almost invariably result in rumination, poor sleep and deteriorating mental health. Clarifying your inner conflict or confusion enables you to come to new conclusions that are more acceptable. You feel less inner dissonance, your world regains its balance and your emotional and psychological health improves.
So why might this be more helpful than say, a chat with your friend over a drink? Therapeutic sessions provide an environment in which you can develop an increased awareness of your own value base with less risk of feeling judged. Values are a given in all of us and work can present us with issues where what we feel is right and what is really happening are in conflict. Such situations demand that we develop personal mechanisms to allow the coexistence of such differences. By clarifying your values, you will come to realise why some things may be more challenging than others for you. Your values may include, "I am resilient, trustworthy and dependable", and so more likely perhaps, to feel the need to ‘pull yourself together’ because you’ve previously seen or experienced worse. Your family may notice the changes in you but you refuse to accept their observations (even if privately, you know that you are becoming increasingly moody or impatient when at home). But family life and being a good provider are also probably high on your values list. You subsequently find yourself in a negative cycle of balancing competing demands (values), which leaves you feeling stressed, depressed and anxious - especially if your value of professional resilience struggles with the concept of mental distress being a ‘real’ illness at all.
Next, develop an awareness that mental health is a ‘whole body’ experience and most definitely not ‘just in your head’. People don’t just think stressed but feel it. Time spent with a trusted other will help you clarify your physiological, emotional and behavioural responses. A physical fitness regime will help manage the potentially damaging impact of heightened and prolonged arousal as a consequence of potential danger, but this can be akin to running a boiler with the pressure release valve always in operation. Such coping mechanisms are unlikely to be sustainable in the longer term. Do a little reading on the operation of adrenalin and cortisol to become more aware of the impact of ‘normal’ physiological responses upon your physical and mental health.
Finally, policing staff are acutely aware of how dangerous the world sometimes is. Through your work you will experience constant reminders of just how vulnerable you and those you care about can be. Post-traumatic stress is a real risk for those that may have daily contact with physically and emotionally challenging situations. ‘Forewarned is forearmed’ is a worthwhile mantra here. You will undoubtedly know of people that have experienced just one trauma too many and many of them will tell you that they just didn’t see it coming. By putting a framework for your psychological and emotional well-being in place now, you optimise the likelihood that you don’t become another of these stress-related statistics.