Law Enforcement Family Stress: When Counseling Counts
By Mark Bond, professor of criminal justice at American Military University
Police culture still struggles with acknowledging the serious effects that long-term exposure to traumatic events has on an officer’s mental and physical health. These events can be harmful even for officers who have displayed resilience throughout their careers.
When agencies do not remove the stigma of officers coming forward when they need professional mental healthcare, many officers are left to deal with the effects of stress and depression on their own. Many officers never develop constructive stress management coping strategies during their career to help them find balance and perspective. This lack of coping skills can lead to career burnout, divorce and depression.
Such stress often transfers to an officers’ family as well. There are even fewer stress management or mental health programs available for law enforcement families who are dealing with the stressors of their spouse’s profession.
Some notable stressors that law enforcement spouses have reported:
- Challenges of rotating shifts and being on opposite schedules. Such shifts force the family to keep the house dark and quiet while trying to g through their daily routine
- Officers becoming too cynical, which makes meaningful conversations difficult
- Feelings of loneliness from the long hours a spouse is away at work
- Children being teased or bullied because they have a law enforcement parent
- Officers never relaxing and unwinding between shifts
- Officers drinking excessively when off-duty
- Having to make many of the family decisions alone
- Easing children’s fears regarding the safety of their law enforcement parent
- Experiencing a law enforcement death (knowing the officer, their spouse and children)
- Officer’s inability or willingness to express feelings to his/her spouse
- Firearms in the house around children and their friends
- Spending too much off time with other officers rather than with the spouse and children
- Too much shop talk or, in some cases, too little talk and shutting the spouse out
Seeking help for stress management and working to develop healthy coping skills is not a weakness for officers or their families. Such efforts can bring the officer and his/her spouse closer and make the family “police strong.”
In the case of Jaffee v. Redmond, the Supreme Court created psychotherapist-patient privilege in which a patient’s rights and privileges are considered confidential and the therapist cannot be compelled to offer testimony about a police officer’s specific diagnoses or treatment.
However, there are limitations to confidentiality. Anyone seeking counseling should get the limitations and privilege in writing from the licensed therapist before beginning sessions and care.
The bottom line is that licensed mental health professionals can help both the individual officer and his or her family develop coping skills and strategies to better deal with working in a profession that regularly exposes officers to trauma and danger.
Learning to live healthy includes your mental health. Making the decision to take care of your loved ones is a healthy choice that can benefit the entire law enforcement family and bring them closer as a family unit.
About the Author: Mark Bond worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms trainer for more than 29 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military, local, state, and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a BS and MS in Criminal Justice, and M.Ed in Educational Leadership with Summa Cum Laude Honors. As a lifelong learner, he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in education with a concentration in distance education. Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at American Military University & American Public Universityand is one of the faculty directors in the School of Public Service & Health. You can contact him at Mark.Bond@mycampus.apus.edu.