The Need For Police EAP Programs
By Terence T. Gorski
September 28. 2002
There is a desperate need to provide credible and
effective employee assistance programs (EAP's) to our nation's police
officers. The police are a critical component in our national network of
emergency first responders. Police officers and the personnel who
support them provide critical safety sensitive functions that needed at
all levels of government. Its important to value the efforts of these
professionals and recognize the stress and sufferring that
they endure in the course of protecting us all. Most importantly,
we need to commit resources to prevent, mitigate, and properly manage
the personal problems that result from a career of exposure to traumatic
Each year many officers are killed in the line of duty. Most
leave grieving family members behind. Many more officers are
killed by a second wave of deaths related to the police profession -
suicide. Each year many current and former officers choose to end
their lives because the pain of dealing with the memories of past trauma
is too much for them to handle. Sometimes the immediate trigger
for the suicide is obvious. There is an immediate critical
incident that pushes the officer over the edge. The death of State Trooper Mark Zack
tells such a story.
Most of the time, however, there is no dramatic moment of
truth. The chronic stress and trauma of a career can harden
officers. They disconnect from their feelings, their values, their
very sense of self. They continue to function on the job.
Often they are outstanding officers, but something is missing.
Their humanity has been slowly eroded by the continuous low grade
stressors of police work and the periodic eruption of major incidents
causing traumatic stress.
This slow build-up of pain and sufferring has collateral
damage. Many marriages are destroyed. Vital relationships
with friends and family members are lost. Many officers turn to
alcohol or other mood altering drugs to try and manage the pain.
Others just suffer in silence behind the stoic mask that they are taught
to wear as part of their profession.
At some point, and most officers who attempt suicide are exactly sure
when, the buildup of stress, pain, and isolation becomes too much to
bear. Some small or even trivial event pushes them into
hopelessness and they try to end their lives.
In retirement the accumulated pain of a life-time police stress can
become unbearable. An isolated life made sane by intense career
involvement can become a desperate trap of loneliness after
retirement. Alcoholism and prescription drug addiction can spiral
out of control. In this tomb of isolation many officers choose to
quietly end it all. These quit suicides behind the scenes mark an
unheralded sacrifice made in the line of duty.
The death of every police officer should signal the need for all police
departments to place a renewed emphasis on their Employee Assistance
Programs. It should teach us an important lesson - that we need to
work harder to create a police culture that encourages officers to get help in times of trauma and stress.
As addiction and mental
health professionals, stories like that State Trooper Mark Zack should cause us to recommit
ourselves to the task of making sure that all police officers in
all departments around the country have access to credible and effective
employee assistance services.
We can't wait for a tragic incident to send us into action.
Preparation is the key to reducing damage related traumatic
events. We need to be sure that all officers and their families
are prepared by advanced training to deal with the traumatic events that
are a routine part of their lives.
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