Police Officers Face Cumulative PTSD

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on American Military University’s blog, In Public Safety.  We are grateful that they have permitted us to share it with our audience.

Even with all we know about its effects and ways to treat it, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common among police officers and continues to take its toll on their lives and those of their families.

Most of what people think of as PTSD relates to trauma suffered by soldiers and those in the military. However, police officers’ PTSD is different. Soldiers often get PTSD from a single or brief exposure to stress. However, for police officers PTSD tends to manifest over time, resulting from multiple stress-related experiences. This is better known as cumulative PTSD.

Understanding Cumulative PTSD

Cumulative PTSD can be even more dangerous than PTSD caused from a single traumatic event, largely because cumulative PTSD is more likely to go unnoticed and untreated. When a catastrophic event occurs, such as an officer-involved shooting, most departments have policies and professionals to help an officer address and deal with the aftermath of an event.

However, the build-up of events that arise throughout an officer’s career generally do not warrant such specialized attention. As a result, an officer with cumulative PTSD is less likely to receive treatment. Unlike a physical injury, a mental traumatic injury can happen almost daily. When the demon of PTSD surfaces it often goes ignored. If untreated, officers can become a risk to themselves and others.

Causes of PTSD

Numerous events can cause PTSD in police officers, such as hostage situations, dangerous drug busts, responding to fatal accidents, and working other cases that include serious injury or death. But there are many less traumatic situations that can still be extremely stressful for an officer. Other stressful situations include, but are not limited to: long hours; handling people’s attitudes; waiting for the next call and not knowing what the situation will be; and even politics within the department. Then, on top of it all, officers are frequently criticized, scrutinized, and investigated for decisions they make.

[Related: The Impact of Stress and Fatigue on Police and Steps to Control It]

Signs of PTSD

If recognized early and treated properly, officers and their families can overcome the debilitating effects of cumulative PTSD. The key to early intervention and treatment is recognizing the signs of PTSD and seeking help sooner rather than later.

Some of the physical signs officers should look for in themselves include:

  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Chest pain
  • Twitches
  • Thirst
  • Insomnia or nightmares
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Grinding of teeth
  • Profuse sweating
  • Pounding heart
  • Diarrhea or intestinal upsets
  • Headaches

[Related: How Police Can Reduce and Manage Stress]

Behavioral signs family members of officers and officers should look for in themselves and in others include:

  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Pacing and restlessness
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Anti-social acts
  • Suspicion and paranoia
  • Increased alcohol consumption and other substance abuse

Emotional signs include:

  • Anxiety or panic
  • Guilt
  • Fear
  • Denial
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Intense anger
  • Agitation
  • Apprehension

The situational training new recruits receive is simply not enough to prepare them for the reality of the experiences they will face throughout their careers. Most young officers do not understand the stressful events they are likely to experience during their years on the job. Many officers are also not adequately equipped with the emotional tools necessary to deal with the emotions they will feel when things happen.

However, awareness continues to grow about the stress and trauma that officers’ experience. Organizations like the Station House Retreat offer both inpatient and outpatient treatment trauma therapy and peer-support services for police officers as well as all first responders. They also offer addiction treatment for first responders, and support for their family members.


About the Author: Michelle L. Beshears earned her baccalaureate degrees in social psychology and criminal justice and graduate degrees in human resource development and criminology from Indiana State University. She most recently completed her Ph.D. in Business Administration with a specialization in Criminal Justice. Michelle served in the U.S. Army for 11 years. She obtained the rank of Staff Sergeant prior to attending Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia where she earned her commission. As a commissioned officer she led numerous criminal investigations and worked with several external agencies as well. As a civilian, she has worked with the local sheriff’s department, state drug task force and FBI. Michelle is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at American Military University and is full-time faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies. You can contact her at Michelle.Beshears(at)mycampus.apus.edu.

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  1. Cate Acatelysteleven

    This type of trauma is a result of long tours of combat
    Or being he’d in captivity for an extended period of time
    Torture included.

    In WWII it was called
    Shell shock

    The civil war
    A soldiers heart

    Then there is
    secondary ptsd
    I.e.: the nation watching a live broadcast of the first war like attack On us soil On 9/11. Young friends born 1985 told me they watched it at school
    The teacher rolled a tv in to see what the news was about, he was 14, he dropped out of school that year. In shell shock and fear.
    In my humble perspective,
    We need to skip the stigma
    Admit there is hope and one is capable of surviving not always suffering!
    This comes
    A lot of experience in healing and a lot of research
    With veterans and rape survivors
    And inspector Hennessy
    Who never held back the types of ptsd his partners never came round from.
    Anyone else have any solo adventures of healing to share

  2. Fran Leard

    We all need to give our police officer’s all the love and respect needed to do their job. We need to stop the sick liberals from always blaming police officer’s for doing their job. It’s no wonder our heroes are so depressed. They are dammed if they do and dammed if they don’t. I’m sick of hearing of all the killings because they were told to stand down and let the hoodlums throw rocks or spit in their face. I’m sick of those black lives matter hateful group who are intent on killing our officer’s. God help them deal with this horrible stress that have to endure. These killings need to be stopped now.

    • Cate Acatelysteleven

      What exactly is the point where you know that doing your job is about to make you do the wrong thing ?

  3. Boomer12k

    I am an Emotional Researcher. I have had the symptoms. I agree PTSD can be sudden, or it can come on over time. Shock of negative incidents can be cumulative. I experienced it with my illness over 7 years. In 2007, the stress was full blown, though my physical symptoms were largely healed. The EMOTIONAL side was not, and I was left a “raw nerve”. In 2009, I discovered a technique, that took down those symptoms, and they stopped. Anxiety, stopped. ALL of the emotional symptoms STOPPED… many of the physical symptoms are actually CONNECTED TO THE EMOTIONS… my discovery… you stop the emotional content, the other signals can stop too!!!!!!! I have been doing the technique on a great variety of things, nearly everyday for 8 years. That is over 2800 times, successfully. I can still have an episode, I have no thyroid…I get irritated…and more… They stop again with the technique. But it is more than mere “management”…. well worth any officer’s time to check it out… Do a yahoo search for “Happiness Is No Charge”… go to the hnc-today website on Weebly….THERE IS SOMETHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT AS AN INDIVIDUAL…I HAVE STOPPED IT MYSELF….TRUE….NO KIDDING…. on website, Read My Depression Story, and main page, and Versions, hover your mouse on MORE, and go down the pages… and my contact page is at the bottom, you can email me any questions…. best wishes….from someone who has BEEN THERE… and came out of it, back to at least 95 percent of his old self… wouldn’t it be nice, to be able to get back to….Normal? You CAN GET CLOSE!!!!! My Experience…. another officer, does not have to go through this… there IS A TECHNIQUE….

  4. reve888

    Yes, and the same for children who grow up in chaotic and dangerous homes. At least police start their traumas as adults who are more prepared for the traumas than little children are. No one ever talks about PTSD of children, who probably grow up to be some of the ones that the police have to deal with, which then makes the police screwed up, and then their wives. A snowball effect. I also agree with Bigj78. No one with PTSD with any amount of wisdom will get help for it, because in today’s progressive society, anyone a victim of trauma is punished, because our society believes that all crimes are committed by victims (the ones having to deal with the pain and sorry of being victims), and not by people who chose to do evil. To a progressive liberal, admitting you have PTSD is like admitting you’re going to become a serial murderer. Heck, little old ladies who need help with their checkbooks are considered so dangerous that they aren’t allowed to have guns to protect themselves. Liberals have a wonderful way of turning the victims into the criminals, and the criminals into the victims. Today, you’d be better off to admit that you already were a criminal than to admit that you had PTSD. Criminals are always being given one more chance, and then one more, and one more, but people with PTSD and similar problems immediately get their rights taken away from them.

  5. Bigj78

    It’s great that this is being recognized but hardly anything is brought up about what to do after realizing PTSD is part of your life. Or the fact that if one was diagnosed the department will more often then not fire you for it as you are now a liability. Even if they do not you are at minimum removed from duty. Which in itself is very stressful and adds to the already found issue. Then you have the stigma that follows you and good luck finding another LEO job after being diagnosed. So now you have someone with a disability, who is unable to find food or money to raise a family, in a profession he worked for a decade or more and has no experience to get another job in another profession. Yep, don’t let PTSD destroy your life, but if you get help, we will destroy your life… No one likes to talk about that part.

    • Clare May

      Spot on sparky…

      • JeffandSuzy Coulter

        I’m sorry for this seeming like a sales pitch but you can read about what I went through in our book. http://www.jnsbooks.com There is hope through Christ for all my brothers and sisters out there. I pray for all of you everyday. Keep looking up! God is looking down. Yours in Christ. Jeff Coulter

      • Cate Acatelysteleven

        They say there is no treatment for
        COMBAT ptsd
        COMPLEX ptsd
        and the new term for officers
        Cumulative ptsd
        There’s another overlooked
        Prison ptsd
        Intermittent Explosive Disorder

        I have suffered C-Ptsd for over twenty years it was cumulative over the years after captivity
        It loomed waiting for me .
        I have a scope of working On me and with others
        We believe it hasn’t a gestation of 7-9 years before really showing its ugly head,as they say.
        In all fairness I believe the subconscious only can keep the memories at bay for that long
        We begin to unravel.
        Looking for help or offering up that you’re diagnosed ismore than a soluble edge sword
        It’s a five star weapon you never meant to cut yourself even more deeply than before asking for help.
        I sufferedmany years
        Most days I survive itfor nearly a decade.
        As of late
        Watching my government being dismantled
        All my elders ever fought for being stripped away
        From all citizens
        Except the wealthy.
        Saddest days in the USA
        Any good suggestions
        Might brighten my day

    • Kevin Owen

      This is all true. It’s a lose lose, just like the job. When I first got the job I couldn’t believe I hit the jack pot, I asked God why me, why am I so blessed with this. Was no jack pot or blessing, I’d give every penny back to get my head back. Just have to move forward, shut up and deal.

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