Sunday, August 22, 2010

What Cops Should Know about Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a formal psychiatric diagnosis. At the risk of stating the obvious, a key component to PTSD is exposure to traumatic stress. I bring this up because virtually all police officers are exposed to traumatic stress but not all develop PTSD. Traumatic stress is an occupational inevitability for cops. PTSD on the other hand is an occupational risk. Some research suggests police officers have an increased risk for developing PTSD at some point during their career.

There are a number of complicated variables that affect how we respond to traumatic incidents, some of which are dimly understood. For example, if an officer experienced childhood abuse which he or she successfully suppressed from memory, those memories may re-emerge upon exposure to a traumatic incident later in life. I’ve had clients painfully describe how previous traumatic memories have resurfaced after the incident that brought them in, like candy spilling out of a piƱata.

Some of us are more vulnerable to post traumatic symptoms than others. Importantly, our increased vulnerability is not the result of mental weakness. They include constructs such as temperament, early childhood experience, social learning and coping styles.

Don’t try and diagnose yourself with PTSD. Leave that to the professionals. When is it time to seek professional help? If you’ve been exposed to a traumatic stressor and after several weeks,

1. You continue to have sleep problems (e.g., difficulty falling or staying asleep, sleeping too much).

2. You over eat or have difficulty keeping food down.

3. You continue having trouble with your mood (e.g., irritability/anger, sadness/crying,

panic response like your heart’s going to jump out of your skin).

4. Co-workers, friends or family members are expressing concern about you.

I shudder to think of how many police officers who know something is wrong with them try to white knuckle their way through PTSD. A recent study by the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center found veterans with PTSD were twenty five percent more likely to die within a year after surgery than non-PTSD veterans. This, despite the fact that the veterans were younger in age at the time of surgery and even after they had long separated from military service. The point? It ain’t goin’ away.

PTSD has an impact on entire families. It’s been described as ‘the gift that keeps giving’.

PTSD isn’t like the West Nile Virus or Yellow Fever. It’s a treatable condition. You cannot be treated for PTSD (or any other serious medical problem for that matter) unless you seek help.

As cops we pride ourselves in having common sense. We use reason instead of blind emotion, voodoo or tea leaves to arrive at the best ‘thing to do’ in any given situation. The greek philosopher Epicurus wrote,

Chance seldom interferes with the wise man; his greatest and highest interests have been, are, and will be, directed by reason throughout his whole life.

If you think you may have PTSD what do you think the wise thing to do is?

Next week I’ll end “The Body Keeps the Score” series with a discussion of how to strengthen our emotional kevlar for future exposure to traumatic stress.

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