Police academies are tasked with preparing recruits to perform the job duties of a law enforcement officer and build physical resilience. But being fit for duty is about more than having the physical strength and knowledge of police tactics to get a job done. It’s also about ensuring you have the psychological resilience to cope with the stress and pressure that comes as part of the job.
“Psychological resilience is the ability to bounce back from the stressors of this profession the same way we’re able to bounce back from the physical threats of this profession,” says Laura King, Ph.D., Chief of Police for McHenry County Conservation District in Illinois and author of Officer Safety Redefined. “It’s never been a focus of academies or law enforcement agencies, but it needs to be.”
That’s because law enforcement as a profession takes a significant toll on officers. In fact, suicide has been the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths four out of the past five years (second only to COVID-19 in 2020). And it claims the lives of many more former and retired officers, although the statistics are less clear among these demographics.
Despite the prevalence of this issue, help can feel elusive or is offered too late to officers in many cases. That’s why King stresses the importance of focusing on mental fortitude early on.
“This job is incredibly hard on both the body and the mind,” she says. “If we don’t take efforts to keep ourselves physically strong, our fitness is going to deteriorate and that’s going to compromise our ability to perform the job. In the exact same way, if we don’t keep ourselves mentally strong, our mental health can also become compromised and affect our ability to do the job.”
The Keys to Mental Fitness
The first step toward mental fitness is physical fitness, King says. That’s because physical and psychological health go hand in hand. U.K. researchers found that psychological health was a good predictor of physical health over a lifetime, and that for each point increase in a participant’s psychological health score there was a 4% increase in the intensity of physical activity. Another study, which followed more than 150,000 participants for seven years, found the inverse to also be true. Study results, which were published in BMC Medicine in 2020, reported that participants who scored low in both cardiovascular fitness and physical strength were a whopping 98% more likely to develop depression and 60% more likely to develop anxiety as compared to physically fit participants.
But being physically strong isn’t enough to increase your psychological resiliency. Consider these additional components of mental wellness:
Studies show diet can affect mental health, as can alcohol and other substances. But quality sleep is equally essential to physical and mental wellness. Not getting enough sleep can lead to heart disease and stroke — and yet sleep can be the first thing to go when you’re under stress. To make matters worse, being sleep-deprived leads to stress and anxiety, which in turn makes it even more difficult to sleep.
It’s not uncommon for law enforcement officers to feel disconnected from friends and loved ones outside the profession since they don’t fully understand the job. But social connectedness is vital to officer mental health, so don’t isolate yourself from others. Maintain relationships with people both inside and outside of law enforcement.
More often than not, you’re dealing with people on their worst days, and it can skew your perception of the world. It’s not all doom and gloom.
“You need to be able to see all of these terrible things happen and realize that that’s not the true state of the world,” King says. “There’s a whole other reality out there that is full of truth and beauty and wonder and good things that the police aren’t called to.”
So seek them out on your own. Chaperone your child’s class trip. Make a point to see the natural wonders in your state. Host a book drive in your neighborhood or start a meal train for the elderly man or new mom down the street. Do something that lets you see the good in people.
No matter what steps you take to mitigate stress, it will crop up. Have a plan in place to manage it when it does. Take up boxing, practice yoga, meditate, run, listen to heavy metal, read — whatever works for you.
Still, there may be times when the stress of the job, of life, becomes too much. When that happens, it’s important to recognize it early and get help.
“[Being fit for duty] means not waiting until the stress overcomes you and you develop maladaptive behaviors before getting help or taking action or suffering devastating consequences,” King says. “It is about proactively training yourself to do these things before you need them to make the devastating consequences less likely to occur.”
King recommends seeking advice from a professional with experience working with law enforcement officers.
“It’s important to find a culturally competent clinician — someone who is used to working with police — who’s going to understand that a police officer, because of their exposure to suicide and death, is going to be somewhat desensitized to these things and not overreact if an officer admits he or she has thoughts about it,” King says.
Axon is dedicated to bringing responder mental health out of the shadows. Free resources, webinars, and trainings are available on-demand for law enforcement officers and their families through Axon Aid’s Family First program. Contact us to share ideas or content that you would like to see next.