Officers’ PTSD rate comparable to that of military veterans

This month, let’s talk Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There is a lot (Okay, too much) of it going on in our world. Much of the chaos has the potential to trigger a stress reaction.

Therefore, I want us to be knowledgeable about PTSD because if we are ever faced with a traumatic situation—prevention wins every time.

What are some common misconceptions about PTSD?

Myth: PTSD is a military thing. You can only “get” it if you have experienced combat.

Reality: False.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a trauma and stressor-related disorder that develops following a traumatic event and is characterized by symptoms related to intrusive thoughts about the incident, recurrent distress/anxiety, flashbacks, and avoidance of similar situations.  PTSD typically develops following a frightening, stressful, or distressing life event.

Recent studies have shown that police officers experience symptoms suggestive of PTSD at a comparable rate as military veterans. The current statistics show that between 7 and 19 percent of police officers exhibit symptoms of PTSD. Compare these numbers to just 3.5 percent of the general public.

Myth: PTSD is not treatable.   

Reality: False.

PTSD is highly treatable, and the mental health and medical communities have made tremendous strides in developing very effective treatments. Treatments include medications and psychotherapy, either alone or in combination.

Myth: PTSD only affects someone immediately after a trauma event.  

Reality: False.

Almost all symptoms that occur within the first 30 days following a traumatic event are considered to be within the realm of normal and expected. Only if symptoms persist beyond this timeframe would a provider consider possible PTSD.

Even though some level of PTSD symptoms are most often seen within the first three months after a traumatic event, it may take months or even years for symptoms to appear. Symptoms can present as persistent and ongoing or as more inconsistent and situational.

Myth: No one gets PTSD unless the trauma event was first-hand.  

Reality: False.

PTSD can occur due to directly experiencing a traumatic event, perceiving that your life or someone else’s is in danger and/or witnessing or being exposed to a trauma that someone else has experienced, i.e. vicarious trauma.

Most people believe PTSD occurs after a single major traumatic event and even though that may be the case for some, it is not the case for everyone, especially police officers.  For most police officers, PTSD develops from exposure to critical incidents and/or cumulative stressors. This is referred to as cumulative PTSD.

What is cumulative PTSD? It is the cumulative effect of trauma after trauma—even small traumas that build on each other. For example, 10 years of call after call involving violence, death, abuse, major weather events, on and on and on…

I wanted to delve into this topic because the months of June-September can actually be quite stressful for a segment of our community and the rates of people struggling with PTSD symptoms may show increases. Why? Hurricane season.

When you live in the Gulf Coast region, hurricanes are, unfortunately, a part of life. Most of them come and go with little disruption to our lives.  However, every once in a while, a storm of a lifetime hits….you only have to mention the name…Katrina. Harvey. Imelda…and immediately we all can form a mental picture of the impact.

For those of us living in the Houston area in August 2017, Harvey affected us all in some way. I know for me personally, for a while after Harvey when we would get a good rain, I would feel physically anxious. My house did not flood in Harvey, nor was I out in boats and vehicles rescuing people, so I can only imagine the response felt by those who were significantly more impacted.

I know many Houstonians for months afterward had anxious reactions to weather events. It continues even today—why are stores bought out during these times? Anxious people wondering what if this one could be another Harvey.

Every officer working at HPD during that time…experienced a traumatic event. No one was able to go home for weeks. Many officers’ homes flooded but they could not be much help to their families, though the worry was ever present. Officers were inundated with rain running down their faces and backs while making every effort to get to people in some very real and dangerous situations.

I just want you all to know that many still struggle during hurricane season. It’s okay.  Rain can trigger anxiety and stress. The anxiety is palatable and interferes with lives and relationships. It can be paralyzing when monitoring weather almost religiously. It is hard to function when something starts churning near the Gulf. And that, folks…is, more often than not, a PTSD reaction.

PTSD is treatable and there are many things that can be done to improve symptoms. Simple things like regular exercise, a good support network, adequate rest and relaxation, keeping the number of stressors in your life as manageable as possible can be tremendously helpful. Many people benefit from professional help with someone well versed in PTSD treatment.

Do not wait and continue to be overwhelmed with symptoms. Reach out to Psychological Services and we can at least get you headed in the right direction.

Our number is: 832-394-1440.