What Is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?

Every law enforcement officer has been or will be involved with at least one traumatic event. Eventually traumatic events add up. Most officers will be able to cope with the event or events; however there are others that will not.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can occur after you have been through a traumatic event. A traumatic experience typically involves the potential for death or serious injury resulting in feeling of intense fear, helplessness, or horror. The person may have either experienced, witnessed, or been confronted with an event that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury to the person or someone else.

How Common Is PTSD?

An estimated eight percent 8%) of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD. Nearly seven million U.S adults (3.6%) have PTSD during the course of a given year. However, this represents a very small percentage compared to the statistics related to individuals who have experienced traumatic events that could have triggered PTSD. 61% of men and 52% of women have reported at least one significant traumatic event in their lifetimes. Although there are unique cultural and gender based aspects of PTSD, it occurs in men and women, adults and children, in all cultural groups, and all socioeconomic types. A national study of American civilians estimated that the lifetime prevalence of PTSD was 5% in men and 10% in women. Approximately 30% of the men and women who have spent time in war zones experience PTSD.

Every law enforcement officer has been or will be involved with a traumatic event, often an uncountable number of traumatic events, by the nature of the job. The details of these events would stagger the average citizen. PTSD statistics for law enforcement officers are hard to obtain, but range from 4-14%. The discrepancy in this range may be due to underreporting. Living through a traumatic event is hard enough for an officer, admitting that you are having problems related to that event is even harder. Law enforcement officers are at a much higher rate of developing a cumulative form of PTSD related to their exposure to multiple traumatic events.

What Types of Trauma Can Lead to PTSD?

Anyone who has gone through a life-threatening event can develop PTSD. These events can include: combat or military exposure, violent personal assault (rape, battery, robbery, mugging), being kidnapped or taken hostage, terrorist attacks, torture, incarceration (such as a prisoner of war), natural or manmade disasters, diagnosis of life threatening illness, childhood sexual or physical abuse, terrorist attacks, serious accidents, etc.

What Events Are Most Likely to Traumatize Law Enforcement Officers?

Psychologist Nancy Davis identified the following events as being the most potentially traumatic for law enforcement officers:

  • Witnessing the death of a law enforcement officer or viewing their body at the scene.
  • A reasonable belief that the officer's death or critical injury was imminent.
  • Accidentally killing or wounding a bystander.
  • The officer's inability to stop a suspect from injuring or killing another.
  • Killing or wounding a child, teenager or mentally ill individual, even if the life of the officer had been threatened.
  • Viewing the body of a child victim, particularly if the officer has children, or if the child had been assaulted, abused or tortured.
  • When a dead victim becomes personalized, rather than just an unknown body.
  • The terror of being caught in a violent riot.
  • An officer is blamed or told he or she is responsible for the death of an innocent bystander, law enforcement officer, or a child victim.
  • Exchanging shifts with another officer who is killed while working the exchanged shift.
  • Responding to a call minutes after an officer is killed or critically injured.
  • Particularly bloody or gruesome scenes that involve decay, dismemberment, or suffering.
  • Observing an event involving violence or murder, but not being able to intervene.
  • Feeling responsible for someone else’s life (hostage negotiators)
  • Undercover assignments in which the officer is constantly "on-guard" because of the likelihood of being hurt, killed, or discovered.
  • When an "informant" developed by an officer is murdered for providing information to law enforcement.
  • Viable threats of violence by suspects towards an officer and/or his family.
  • Being referred to as a "Hero" after being involved in an incident where other officers died or were critically wounded.
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