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Coping with the Stress of Police Work


Editor’s Note: This article is part of In Public Safety’s series recognizing National Police Week.

By Nicole Cain, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

Police officers generally enter people’s lives during or after highly charged, negative, or tragic situations. They step into the lives of strangers for a brief moment in time and witness a broad spectrum of human behavior and emotions.

Sad female police officerAccording to a report completed by the National Institute of Justice in 2000, exposure to violence, suffering, and death is inherent to the profession of police officer. Police officers are the first responders to a variety of violent acts including murders, shootings, stabbings, sexual assaults, and child abuse, as well as vehicle accidents, riots, and natural disasters.

On any given day, a police officer speaks with victims and witnesses who are often upset or traumatized. Officers also make death notifications to the next of kin of loved ones who have died from suspicious, traumatic, or unattended deaths. Each of these calls for service can create a roller coaster of emotions for a police officer who must remain calm, professional, and focused on the task at hand.

The Severe Consequences of Stress
I, like so many police officers, have seen the results of humanity at its worst. Officers interact with drug addicts, drug dealers, prostitutes, and other criminals on a daily basis. At the same time, officers also complete mundane tasks, remain sedentary, spend several hours alone, and work abnormal hours. All of this has an impact on mental and physical health.

Research shows that police officers who do not properly manage their stress are prone to burnout, poor judgment, substance abuse, divorce, and suicide. A five-year study of officers at the Buffalo Police Department conducted by the University of Buffalo concluded that stressors encountered by police officers on a daily basis “put them at significantly higher risk than the general population for a host of long-term physical and mental health effects.”

[Related article: Silent Suffering: Warning Signs and Steps to Prevent Police Suicide]

Address Your Mental Health
Officers must take responsibility for their own mental and physical health. First, officers must adopt a healthy lifestyle. Exercise, healthy eating, minimal alcohol consumption, adequate sleep, and regular checkups by a doctor are excellent starting points.

[Related article: Tackling the Obesity Epidemic in Law Enforcement]

Mental health is equally as important. Police officers must be able to mentally cope with the stressors of the job. A strong support system is invaluable. To prevent burnout, police officers should have stable and communicative relationships with their families and develop friendships outside of law enforcement.

Officers should talk about their day with a spouse, family member, friend, or co-worker. Officers should attend church, participate in their children’s activities, volunteer, hike, dance, play sports, travel, read, and/or attend college; any activity that allows them to participate in life away from the job is beneficial. Balancing the negative aspects of the job with a positive and healthy lifestyle is essential.

[Related article: Law Enforcement Family Stress: When Counseling Counts]

Help on the Job
Police departments have a role in maintaining the mental health of their officers, too. Most agencies provide officers with peer counseling after critical incidents. Furthermore, many agencies have employee assistance programs (EAPs) in place to assist officers in times of high stress.

Officers must be battle-ready every day to protect and serve the public, but they must also protect themselves from the negative effects of on-the-job stress.

About the Author: Nicole Cain has been an instructor with APUS for four years and earned a full-time faculty position in January 2012. She has instructed numerous criminology and forensic courses online for more than nine years. She has more than 16 years of law enforcement experience, serving in a variety of capacities that include patrol operations, uniform crime scene, community oriented policing (COP), and criminal investigations. She is currently assigned to investigate violent crimes that include homicides, sexual batteries, robberies, aggravated batteries, and aggravated assaults. During her career in law enforcement, she has authored police reports, arrest affidavits, and search warrants; observed autopsies; testified in court; processed crime scenes; interviewed witnesses; and conducted interrogations.

She currently attends Southeastern University where she is pursuing her doctoral degree in Education (Ed.D). She attained a B.A. in Political Science from the University of South Florida, a M.S. in Criminal Justice Administration from Saint Leo University, and Police Officer Minimum Standards from Polk State College.



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  1. Nicole as an officer with 26 years of experience, I have seen my share of the horrible stuff people do in this world. Some of what I have seen can only be described as evil. It is a shame most academies only briefly cover the importance of us taking care of ourselves mentally and physically for the long term of a career. It is a shame that, too often, cities and counties offer mental health assistance to police officers only to have officers be afraid to take advantage of the program for fear of being labeled as crazy. As platoons, units, squads, etc., we will have shift parties or “choir practices” but we won’t get together as a group to work out regularly. I have never understood why we have ever encouraged each other to suck it up and drink it away. Police work has changed over the last 26 years. We have had to adapt to stricter procedures in how we enforce laws. We have adjusted to changes in equipment. We have to constantly adjust to the politics of the times. Our health and mental wellbeing is the only thing we have total control over. Yet, we refuse to adjust our lifestyles in order to deal with the crap in which we have little control over. It is a vicious cycle we have gotten ourselves into.

  2. Lorrie,

    I completely agree with you. It is unfortunate that officers are fearful of being labeled as “crazy” by their peers. Being mentally and physically fit should be the top priority of every officer and encouraged by their administration.


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