Former police officer Sonny Provetto clearly remembers being called to a 13-car pileup in his previous role with the police department in Burlington, Vt.
And when he drives along the same highway today, he said it still affects him.
“The operator was decapitated,” Provetto recalled of one of the drivers. “In the normal realm of human experience, you usually don’t see these things. But as a police officer you see them, day in and day out.”
According to police Sgt. Stephanie Neuman, police officers don’t start in their line of work thinking nothing will ever happen that affects them. However, it’s impossible to prepare for the reality of seeing traumatic incidents.
“It’s not normal to see brain matter spattered on the wall when you get called to a murder scene,” she said. “It’s not normal to see a baby die. Days and events precipitate things out of your control.”
After witnessing a shooting six years ago as a rookie officer in Cheyenne, Wyo., Neuman knew she needed help to cope.
“I was involved in an officer shooting eight weeks on the job,” she said. “The chief at the time wanted me to go back to work immediately. I was devastated. Luckily, a lieutenant stepped in and advised the chief that I would go on administrative leave and I would be given mental health services.”
Going through traumatic experiences as police officers prompted Neuman and Provetto — both NASW members with MSWs — to seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, and to pursue social work in order to help fellow law enforcement officers in similar mental health predicaments. Provetto is now an LCSW in private practice.
Police officers constantly make split-second decisions, which may be questioned later by their superiors and community, said George Patterson, LCSW.
From his experience as a counseling specialist with the police department in Rochester, N.Y.; a visiting professor, curriculum adviser and consultant to the New York City Police Department; and visiting professor to the police department in Westchester County, N.Y., Patterson got to know everything a police officer comes into contact with every day. They’re dealing with homicide, he said, child abuse, domestic violence, and pain and suffering right at the scenes.
“Dealing with bloody, violent experiences and suffering takes a toll emotionally,” said Patterson, an NASW member and associate social work professor at Hunter College in New York. “There is also life stress not related to work, such as going through a divorce, financial problems, buying a home. And this is all in addition to adjusting to a job. They need some way to cope.”
“In police academy, no one tells you how it will feel,” Neuman said. “There is a good old boy mentality in law enforcement: ‘If you can’t take it, get out.’ But the idea of getting help should be normalized, without stigma.”
Patterson said not getting treatment can negatively affect job performance.
“Getting help is sometimes not so clear-cut, as many police departments have work politics,” he said. “(Police officers) are afraid that if it gets out that they’re seeking help — and they don’t have support at work — they’ll be seen as there’s something wrong with them, which may affect their jobs. But without treatment, cops can adopt maladaptive coping behavior such as drinking problems, promiscuity and violence — both on and off the job.”
Provetto said it’s more acceptable than it used to be for an officer to seek help, but there is still room for more understanding.
“Compared to the old days of ‘old-school cops’ … today there is much less stigma, but no paradigm shift yet,” he said.
Patterson said there are many ways to get treatment, and help can remain confidential.
“Why suffer in silence?” he said. “Otherwise, it can just get worse with the development of the maladaptive behaviors as a coping mechanism.”
Most police departments have a confidential employee assistance program that can serve as a good place to start to seek help, Neuman said. She created the website Caring for Cops, One Badge at a Time as a way to gently introduce the idea of getting therapy to police officers suffering from mental health issues, and to show that seeking treatment won’t harm their jobs but actually help them in their careers and well-being.
“It doesn’t mean you’re weak or you’re a bad officer,” she said. “Getting help can put you in a better situation to feel better, do your job better and get promotions.”
Police officers and mental health
- Out of the seven-month police academy training in the state of New York, only one-half to one full day is dedicated to stress management on the job — George Patterson.
- 14 percent to 19 percent of police officers are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder. The general public (non-police officers) are at an 8 percent to 10 percent risk — Sonny Provetto
- 25 percent of officers use alcohol to numb the pain of PTSD — Sonny Provetto
- Police officers are two to three times more likely to take their own life than to have an assailant kill them — Stephanie Neuman
- 80 percent of all officers will experience a critical incident that tests their limits and their ability to cope with a high stress situation — Sonny Provetto