What are protective factors in law enforcement: Ballistic vests notwithstanding

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Officer wearing ballistic vest

A new paper was just published in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology that has to do with high rates of depression in some police officers. It is written by Emily Jenkins (2019) who is a biostatistician and epidemiologist at the National Institute for Safety and Occupational Health in Morgantown, WV.  Her co-authors include John Violante who himself is an epidemiologist and former New York State Trooper now researching police officer health and suicide.  Basically, the authors say there are factors in personality and behavior that serve to reduce the new incidence of depression in LEO’s and to reduce the associated physical debility that may be co-occurring in cases where a history of depression was previously reported. One might see this protection as a ballistic vest for emotional health and career hardiness. High resilience leads to career success, satisfaction, and reduced likelihood of developing depression. Resilience refers to adaptability and flexibility in dealing with stressful situations.  Resilience officers are able to tolerate highly stressful situations without becoming debilitated by stress and negativity.

I find the study interesting but it doesn’t connect with the troops in the field. For example, one feature listed as helpful against depression is “active coping” that includes things like agreeableness, conscientiousness, and having social support. Understanding protective factors leads to understanding who is most at risk of developing depression.  The goal is to reduce depression among LEO’s and lessen the long-term impact of depression once it has been diagnosed.  The paper cites links to depression and poor coping skills to personality features such a high neuroticism and low conscientiousness and low extraversion.  These variables may lead to higher risk for substance abuse, reduced hardiness, and a host of physical signs and symptoms.  These personality features are the biomarkers of chronic stress and its harsh consequences. They make sense to me but I rarely encounter a police officer, or anyone else for that matter that actively thinks about the core set of personality features that have defined them throughout life.

Officers across the country are being trained in peer support and crisis intervention training. At the Direct Decision Institute we are providing a variety of training programs designed for this same issue – increased officer hardiness and reduced risk of burnout, depression, and suicide. These are intuitive concepts and when talking with active duty LEO’s, I feel like the rank and file understand the words they hear but rarely will an officer offer up a personal example of times he or she may have had behavioral health issues. I have heard officers become very emotional when telling the stories of friends who have suffered with mental illness but rarely a personal story.

Two recent exceptions to this notion are Sergeant Mark DiBona, a recently retired sheriff’s department officer from Florida and Joe Smarro, an officer from Texas who is recently featured in an outstanding documentary entitled Ernie and Joe released in May, 2019 with great acclaim.  It should not be this way and there is still great secrecy behind the veil of police service.  It takes great courage to share personal struggles and one’s private experience.  Police officers are most uncomfortable with this. Officers who are signing up for CIT and peer support courses are carefully chosen and may be more open to personal self-disclosure exhibiting greater positive coping skills, hardiness, extroversion and emotional resilience.

In order to reduce stigma associated with law enforcement behavioral health issues all members of the police service need greater self-awareness, openness to self-disclosure, and understanding of the effects of repeated exposure to violence and its broad ranging vicissitudes. This is nothing new and is being taught in academy training. Police psychologists who provide pre-employment screening should analyze the test data carefully and avoid selecting men and women who are most at risk of developing depression and who are outgoing, confident, and emotionally sturdy.

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