Stressors 'significantly' growing for police

Second of two parts

One moment a police officer may find himself in a high-speed pursuit of a robbery suspect. The next he could be consoling a young victim of sexual abuse.

At the beginning of her shift, a cop could be responding to a despondent teenager or an elderly person with dementia. A few hours later, she could be negotiating a hostage situation.

And with cellphone cameras everywhere these days, nearly every move officers make is under scrutiny. Any misstep could wind up trending on social media.

More and more, cops feel that people will find fault with almost anything they do in their role to serve and protect, experts say.

Talk about stress.

As the pressures of the job evolve, gradually more is being done to offer officers release, relieve their stress and preserve their well-being. But barriers to receiving such services remain.

For decades, police departments have conducted mental health evaluations to make sure their new hires are up to the demands of the job. Some offer psychological services for officers who feel like they're buckling under the pressure.

Add police-involved shootings that have generated racial profiling debates and fueled mistrust of officers and you have yet another source of tension for police.

"Over the past six months, the stressors on a police officer's life have changed significantly," said Ellen Scrivner, a police and public safety psychologist who has served in the U.S. Justice Department and as a deputy superintendent for the Chicago Police Department. "They feel very much threatened by everyone. They really question who has their back.

"They feel that whatever I do, I'm going to be called out on," she said. "Whether I act or don't act, it's going to be my fault. That's a very different set of stressors."

Police might be trying to deal with those issues the same way they work through the other pressures of their job - but often that's not very effective, says Catherine Daus, professor of industrial/organizational psychology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

"The culture of emotional expression in police is that you don't," Daus said. "There isn't one. You don't express emotion."

That's not a healthy habit, and it used to be even more pronounced among police, said Cary Police Chief Patrick Finlon.

"There was a time when it wasn't the norm to identify people that needed assistance or for people to ask for assistance. Now I think it's a much different environment that we're in right now in terms of being proactive and offering crisis intervention, stress debriefings or offering the employee assistance programs," he said. "I think it's much different now and I think it's more healthy."

Daus said employers are beginning to learn that many stress-reduction techniques are simple, yet effective, to ward off harmful mental effects that could crop up from prolonged workplace anxiety.

Listen to music. Eat healthier foods. Exercise. Drink more water.

One of the best stress reduction strategies is social support, Daus says.

Lisle police Officer Jodie Wise, who has a double-major in criminal justice and psychology, says she plays that role among the 40 others in her department. She's also one of the department's training officers, which means she spends plenty of time with new recruits when they're adjusting to the pressures of an officer's life.

"I'm kind of the peer support person by default because training is stressful," Wise said.

"Because I'm female, it's less threatening. I call myself the mother bird."

So do other officers, who come to her when they have a problem at work or at home.

And that's a good thing, Scrivner said. "People today are a little bit more comfortable with saying, 'This job is very stressful and the decisions I have to make are tough decisions.'"

Daus says an officer's job is a rare challenge in "emotional labor," which is the work of managing one's own emotions and those of others. Many jobs high in emotional labor, such as nursing, require workers to put forth one set of emotions - kindness and caring, for example.

But police work doesn't call for that type of consistency. It's an emotional labor roller coaster, requiring cops to be the tough guy or gal much of the time, but at a moment's notice, calling on them to exude a more comforting presence.

"There are not that many jobs where people are required to go back and fourth and express and manage different types of emotions," Daus said. "It's really challenging."

One lingering concern in officer mental health is worries about stigma and job security that often preclude cops from seeking help - be it from a mentor, peer supporter, friend, relative, clinician or counselor.

"The big problem has always been, 'If I acknowledge that I'm having some problems, will people see me as weak or ineffective or will they think I can't do the job?'" Scrivner said. "There are still some officers who will say, 'I'm not going to a shrink; they'll all think I'm crazy.'"

Wise said the worry remains that employee assistance programs, though available, may not be confidential.

Officers fear losing their jobs if they seek emotional assistance because they must pass so many levels of mental health screenings to get hired.

"If somebody was having a problem, there'd be a lot of reluctance to come forward," Wise said.

Despite new stressors and disincentives to speak up if something's wrong, Cary's Chief Finlon says things are improving for the mental well-being of suburban police.

"People understand," he said, "that police officers are just like anybody else and experience the same issues that anybody else does."

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In an occasional series, the Daily Herald explores how the suburbs respond to conditions of the mind. Today, we examine stresses faced by police officers and how they handle the emotional demands of the job.

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