One of the toughest parts of being in law enforcement is bouncing back from the daily stress and trauma of a job in which peers can die in the line of duty or a seemingly simple traffic stop can turn deadly without notice, representatives from the Parker Police Department and Douglas County Sheriff’s Office say.
High levels of stress occurring in short bursts throughout a typical day are not uncommon, Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Blanchard said. But, he added, law enforcement officers must still return each day with the same focus and alertness as the day before, because letting down his or her guard — even for a moment — can lead to tragic consequences.
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To help their officers and deputies, the two agencies offer various supports from Employee Assistance Programs, a benefits package that offers counseling services and referrals for employees seeking short-term wellness benefits, to a localized peer support network that works to break through the stigma of mental illness found in law enforcement environments.
In Parker, the police department supplements an EAP provided by the city with various tools to help officers and their families deal with stressful times.
A handful of officers, about 12 or so, volunteer to be trained in counseling. Those officers are part of the department’s Peer Support Network, which can reach out to co-workers demonstrating signs of stress, depression or anxiety to help them talk through the issues.
“When our people are going through these critical incidents, the odds they have gone through one before are very low, so we have people training to navigate through these uncertain times,” Sgt. Nate Schivinski said. “You have someone you can go to... It’s a judgment-free place of healing.”
Schivinski and Blanchard agree that stigma exists about talking about mental health on the job. But Schivinski said the Peer Support Network and mentor programs are improving that aspect.
“We’re trying to move away from that (stigma),” Schivinski said. “If we see something outside the norm, our peer-support team responds.”
Blanchard said the job’s constant stress can lead to what is known as episodic acute stress, which occurs in people who frequently experience stressful situations on a daily basis. The stress builds over time and can cause cumulative stress, which can affect the body physically, with such symptoms as soreness and blurred vision.
Tragic incidents, in which fellow officers die in the line of duty or are severely injured, exacerbate the condition, Blanchard said.
When a fellow officer is fatally or critically shot, it’s common for officers to feel helpless and question the worth of their jobs, he said. A negative energy about the work they’re doing can infect an entire agency. Sometimes, it becomes difficult to remember why they joined the force in the first place.
“You can’t let up and you’ve got to be pushing through,” he said, “but at the same time you push so hard that you forget to let your heart mourn or your mind decompress.”
To help deputies deal with the job’s emotional toll, the sheriff’s department — in addition to its EAP — contracts with an outside group, Nicoletti-Flater Associates, who are counselors dedicated specifically to providing psychological assistance during major incidents. The group conducts debriefings, specializing in trauma intervention and police psychological safety.
Law enforcement officers can go through many difficult times and question their jobs in general — the importance of it and the risk involved, Blanchard said.
“There’s a lot of difficult situations that we face every day that we have a hard time letting go,” he said. “But it comes back to us knowing that’s what we’re called to do. And, sometimes, that’s the sacrifice we have to come to terms with in our own heads.”