Stress - A Policeman's Chaplain

Tragedy to the average man is routine for a police officer. But like foot soldiers in a war, the violence, death, and despair may eventually take their toll. Without an outlet to release the accumulated stress, the life of a police officer can become a pressure cooker with no release valve. They have a sense of innate stresses that the average person doesn’t have in his job.

Because of the job-related stress, studies have indicated that more law enforcement officers have died by their own hands than by homicides during the past 11 years. In addition, they have a higher incidence of divorce and coronary diseases than workers in other fields. There’s a real paradox. Even though he may enjoy his job, he might have to wear a bulletproof vest to protect himself. That vest may shield his body, but until recently there were no safeguards to protect his psyche.  We’d like to remind people that until we find a place to get police officers – other than the human race – we’re going to have to deal with them as human beings. We’re not dealing with superpowers – we’re dealing with fragile beings like anyone else.  Just because they’re law enforcers doesn’t mean they’re not immune to personal problems.

A chaplain’s  “reactive” duties include providing job-related as well as marriage and family counseling; serving as a mediator at horrific crime scenes and scenes of trauma ( for both the public and officers); giving death notifications; and providing funeral and memorial services for the employee or family. Our motto is ‘Nobody really cares what you know until they know that you really care.

Our services are especially appreciated during the holidays when depression and suicides reach their peak. December has been the toughest. This is the busiest time of year for any social worker, crisis intervention specialist or pastors.

Police officers often describe their work as 90% boredom, interrupted by 10% sheer terror. “It takes a couple of hours to get down afterward because of the adrenaline,” said one policeman, describing a recent incident. “It’s not anger or fear that was involved,” he explained. “It’s an element of confusion and not knowing what’s going to happen next.”

Despite the pressures, the Chaplaincy believes that “You are not responsible for what happens to you. But you are responsible for how you react.” And, like many high-stress occupations, those reactions may include alcohol or drug abuse as well as marital problems. “My role is to help officers use health-promoting ways to deal with problems,” he added. “Alcohol may be a relaxant but doesn’t necessarily promote health.”

Positive ways to deal with stress include exercise, proper diet, and mentally preparing for a stressful situation. Unfortunately, frustrations and stress are not always confined to the office. ‘We do the best we can to leave our problems behind,” said one Auburn Police detective. “But it doesn’t always work – it’s hard to do CPR on a kid who died at the hospital – or see a person dissected at an autopsy – and turn it off when you get home,” he explained. As a result, otherwise ordinary problems at home can often be difficult to deal with after a hard day’s work. “You reach a saturation point,” the detective said. “After you’ve dealt with so many problems during the day, it’s tough to cope with the little things at home. Something the silence at the dinner table can be deafening.

One of the biggest problems I see is the lack of communication between the police officer and his family.  Although law enforcement personnel handle emergencies on a routine basis, it is difficult for their families – who aren’t conditioned to seeing accident or crime scenes – to comprehend the details of the job. You can’t exactly explain to your wife or 6-year-old kid what you did that day – about the woman who was raped or tortured – how you almost got shot, and (that) it was a toss of a coin that you made it home” said the detective.

Consequently, the officers generally become more protective of their own families when dealing with cases that hit “close to home.” “I had 2 kids die in my arms – and they were the same age as my own children,” said the detective. “After that, I spent weeks checking on my own kids in the middle of the night to see if they were still there.” Another big problem among police families is the rotating work shifts common in the profession. “Being away from the family for long periods of time is probably the worst part about the job,” said Larney. “It’s hard for them to get used to it, but most do the best they can to tolerate it.”

In addition to family life, the social life of a law enforcer can be seriously hampered due to the nature of the job. ”They represent a different segment of society which is different from the average American family,” explained Merydith, “and this causes isolation (from) the general public.” As a result, officers generally socialize among themselves. ”They rarely socialize outside of law enforcement,” added O’Sullivan.

Because to some, there is a stigma of being a “man in uniform” officers take in stride that they are accepted by some people, but rejected by others. It’s part of the job. They can’t please everyone when they’re trying to comply with the law – it’s like water off a duck’s back – the bad guys are always going to hate you,” explained Larney.

There is also the attitude among some that police are “not around when you need them, but all around when you don’t want them.” They also want to be known for providing a public service, not just law enforcement,” said O’Sullivan. Nevertheless, police must maintain a positive image in the public eye – and learn to deal with the stress.

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