Police culture and mental health: it is time to stop the stigma
Trigger warning: this article on police culture and mental health includes references to suicide and self-harm.
Police culture and mental health: it is time to stop the stigma
"Stop the Threat - Stop the Stigma"
My name is Adam A. Meyers, and I was a Police Officer in Wisconsin - USA, for 21 years. In April 2016, I was involved in a critical incident when I used deadly force against someone who armed themselves with a hatchet inside a busy department store. This person died.
I faced many personal and professional mental health challenges after my critical incident, and it has taken me many years to get back on track. I would not have been successful with my mental health without the unwavering support of my family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers.
The issue of mental health is prominent everywhere in the policing and law enforcement profession, and it is an issue that commands a new perspective.
Mental health stigma within law enforcement
So what is Stigma? According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, the definition of Stigma is “a mark of disgrace or reproach.”
Unfortunately, police culture and mental health are strange bedfellows. Law enforcement professionals who struggle with mental health issues often feel devalued and fearful because of the negative attitude society and others in their profession may have against them. As a result, law enforcement professionals struggling with mental health issues may not get the help they need for fear they’ll be discriminated against or, even worse, have their employment terminated.
The law enforcement profession is a high-stress environment that has been associated with higher-than-normal mental health issues. According to the latest law enforcement statistics by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, police officers report much higher rates of depression, burnout, PTSD, and anxiety than the general population. Nearly one in four police officers report having thoughts of suicide at some point in their life
Law enforcement professionals who openly seek help for anxiety, depression, emotional disorders, or post-traumatic stress disorder often face personal or professional criticism and discrimination. Sometimes, in seeking help, their careers suffer considerable harm. Police officers can be considered "unfit for duty" if their mental health records are revealed, potentially resulting in them losing their employment. Therefore, many law enforcement professionals opt "to suffer in silence to everyone’s detriment, including their own."
This should not deter them from seeking help, but it does. We need to work together to stop the stigma in police culture about mental health.
Law enforcement professionals may choose to treat their mental health issues with poor coping strategies, such as excessive consumption of alcohol, drug abuse, casual sex, and other risky behavior. These strategies are self-destructive and tend to cause more stress, anxiety, and depression. These strategies may also become criminal. I am about to share some of my poor coping strategies with you, which may be triggering for those who have adopted similar coping behaviors.
Negative coping strategies in law enforcement
One of my many negative coping strategies was abusing alcohol. Prior to my critical incident, I collected wine and enjoyed a glass every now and then. However, after my critical incident, I began abusing liquor, mainly whiskey and the cheapest vodka I could get my hands on.
I would consume whiskey and vodka straight from their bottles, on the rocks, or I’d create my own cocktails by combining over-the-counter liquid sleeping or liquid allergy medicines. Sometimes, I would mix in whatever leftover prescription medicines I had in the medicine cabinet, and it didn’t matter if they were prescribed to me or someone else.
For example, I remember one instance when my oldest daughter had leftover prescribed liquid cough medicine containing codeine. I combined whatever was remaining in the bottle with a glass of wine. I was on a prescribed anti-depressant called Venlafaxine while I was abusing alcohol. The label on this medication specially stated, “DO NOT DRINK ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES WHILE TAKING THIS MEDICATION.”
But a warning label did not deter me from abusing alcohol. I very well could have blacked out and never woken up from consuming these dangerous cocktails, but at the time, I simply did not care. I did not care and wanted an escape from my emotional pain. Abusing alcohol may have been a quick fix, but it caused me even more stress, anxiety, and depression.
Another dangerous negative coping mechanism I used was drinking and driving. Before attending any social event, even as simple as going to the grocery store, I would consume alcohol. I would travel to a nearby gas station and purchase as many small bottles of liquor containing about 1.5 ounces of whiskey, vodka, or whatever I could afford at the time. I would immediately consume the alcohol in my vehicle before driving to my destination. I tossed the empty bottles in the back of my vehicle or out the window while I was driving. I would rationalize to myself that it would take about 30 minutes for me to feel the effects of the alcohol, and by the time I was impaired, I would have arrived at my destination. I was fortunate not to be arrested for drinking and driving or, even worse, killing someone.
In 2017, a Ruderman Family Foundation study found that police officers experience depression at a rate five times higher than the average person. That same year, 140 officers committed suicide, compared to 129 officers who died in the line of duty.
Suicidal thoughts under the influence of alcohol
My duty weapon during my critical incident was a Glock 22 Gen 4 – 40 Caliber. I put my duty weapon to my head at least a dozen times. Sometimes I even placed the barrel in my mouth.
I would always remove the magazine, but for those unfamiliar with a Glock, if you don’t rack the slide and remove the round from the chamber (barrel), it will still discharge a round. I very easily could have accidentally killed myself. My rationalization was that I simply wanted to hear and feel the metallic click of the trigger being pulled while the barrel of the gun was resting against my right temple.
I did this while I was under the influence of alcohol. I still don’t truly understand why I did this and sometimes wonder how many times it happened while I was blacked out from excessively consuming alcohol. I’m very fortunate to be alive.
How to overcome the stigma of mental health in law enforcement
To overcome the mental health stigma in the law enforcement profession, it is important that those professionals engaged in policing who suffer from mental health issues learn to understand, accept, and determine what is needed to treat it. It is time to become a part of the solution and work with those suffering to make mental health issues stigma-free.
Law enforcement leaders must take a helpful approach when anyone in their command is struggling with mental health issues. Leaders should establish peer support groups and actively participate in them.
Leaders need to ask themselves, “am I part of the problem or the solution?”
Law enforcement professionals need to be able to trust the leaders and colleagues of their departments to recognize the obstacles and stigmas associated with mental health. They need to feel comfortable and confident that if they are involved in a critical incident and later struggle with mental health issues from the incident, that help will be available with no strings attached.
Remember, mental illness is a medical disorder and not a character flaw or a sign of personal or professional weakness.
“Smashing the stigma” that stops Law Enforcement Officers from reaching out for help when under stress should be a priority for police leaders.
"Police culture and mental health: it is time to stop the stigma" was originally published as "The dangerous stigmas around mental health" in CracklyMag. It has been adapted and republished here with the kind permission of the author, Adam A. Meyers.
Bell, S., Palmer-Conn, S., & Kealey, N. (2022). ‘Swinging the lead and working the head’ – An explanation as to why mental illness stigma is prevalent in policing. The Police Journal, 95(1), 4–23. https://doi.org/10.1177/0032258X211049009
Kelly Long 'Addressing the Mental Health Stigma in Law Enforcement.' American Military University. https://amuedge.com/addressing-the-mental-health-stigma-in-law-enforcement/
Redman, Jessika. January, et al. “Why Do Cops Avoid Counseling? Eight Myths about LawEnforcement Officers and Mental Health Treatment.” Counseling Today, 3 Mar. 2020,ct.counseling.org/2018/01/why-do-cops-avoid-counseling-eight-myths-about-lawenforcement-officers-and-mental-health-treatment/.
Adam A Meyers
Adam A. Meyers, the author of "Police culture and mental health: it is time to stop the stigma," is the Founder of Stop The Threat - Stop The Stigma and a former Wisconsin Police Detective. Adam began his law enforcement career in 2001 after being an active duty United States Army Military Policeman. Adam was a Field Training Officer and an Instructor in Firearms, Professional Communications, Vehicle Contacts, Scenario, and Officer Wellness. Prior to and during Adam's Law Enforcement career, he has spent about 10 years working with Behavioral Health Services Southeastern and Northwestern Wisconsin and for hospitals with Behavioral Health Units.