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Combating post-traumatic stress disorder is not a matter of responding well to an extreme event in the life of a police officer. Instead, it is about creating a culture of support, openness and trust where officers can seek support over the course of their careers and families have access to help when they need it. PTSD demands a constant, strategic and far-reaching plan to support officers, and the reason for this is simple – PTSD isn’t about a single traumatic event.

There is a popular misconception that PTSD occurs largely because a police officer experience an extreme trauma and is unable to cope with the psychological damages it causes. This perception creates a few problems, not least of which is the implication that an officer lacks the strength and toughness to move on from a bad situation. The other key issue, however, is that traumatic events are often the proverbial “last straw” that causes PTSD to flare up, not the actual cause.

Ongoing stress can fuel PTSD in police officers and other service professionals.
Ongoing stress can fuel PTSD in police officers and other service professionals.

Addressing the root cause of PTSD
For the most part, PTSD is the result of consistent exposure to stress that eventually reaches a tipping point because a single event exacerbates an already frayed psyche. From there, the officer may get a great deal of support for a few weeks after the event, but eventually, life returns to normal, the individual keeps working out in the field and the consistent stress makes it extremely difficult to completely escape the PTSD.

The solution isn’t to shelter officers from stress. That isn’t realistic for anybody. Stress is a part of life and police work naturally exposes people to extremely difficult situations. Furthermore, treating officers as if they are damaged and can’t handle stress at all may only exacerbate the situation. Doing this leaves officers feeling like they are looked down upon and afraid to seek help when they really need it. Instead, the goal should be to provide a great deal of initial support after a traumatic event triggers PTSD and then provide consistent, ongoing help – including simply paying attention to signs of PTSD’s presence over time – for the entirety of an officer’s career.

Treating PTSD at its root isn’t just about responding well to a traumatic event, it comes down to creating a culture that understands the everyday stress facing officers and establishes openness as the norm within your agency.

Building a culture that supports officers facing PTSD
Culture begins with policies and training. Reading through handbooks and going through training sessions are among the first things your officers will do during their early days on the job. You can use policy and training methods to establish and reinforce a culture that supports officers facing PTSD. A few ways it can achieve this goal include:

  • Educate officers on how they can identify symptoms of PTSD in their colleagues.
  • Build information on getting help into your training systems.
  • Create mandatory policies when it comes to getting assistance relating to PTSD.
  • Establish clear rules for time off as a result of PTSD.
  • Ensure officers understand the full risk of PTSD and its impact on every facet of their lives.

All of these points can be established in policy and training materials, a process that is much easier when you are using digital, cost-efficient document management software. However, setting these best practices up in the first place isn’t enough to get the job done, you must also reinforce your culture over time. Having new officers equipped with tools to combat PTSD is useful, but the effort will fall flat if the rest of your officers don’t really care. This is where being able to periodically update your policy and training materials with new and engaging content is especially valuable.

Digital document management systems that house your policies and training modules in a Web app let you update and distribute policies with ease. They also let you use video and similar engaging forms of media to keep officers up-to-date on best practices and expectations within the organization. You can use these tools to generate content that will have a meaningful impact on your officers and establish a culture that provides holistic support for PTSD.

As PTSD is often exacerbated by ongoing stress – the best way to protect officers is to create a culture that provides consistent support. Training and policy efforts can go a long way in making this possible.