A different approach to Trauma: A Consideration for Police Officers

Many psychologists do not envision that they will encounter trauma in their practices, but most individuals in Western society will experience at least one potentially traumatic event during their lifetimes (Hall, Alas, Crespi-Hunt, & Khatchadourian, 2014). The two main types of potentially traumatic events (PTEs) experienced by police officers are harm/threat to self or witnessing harm/threat to another individual (Chopko, Palmieri, & Adams, 2018). Responses to PTEs vary, and affect individuals across cognitive, spiritual, emotional, and physical domains of functioning (Bonnano, 2008). Negative responses to PTEs have been observed and recorded for quite some time; depression, anxiety, substance abuse, personality disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder are among the most common reactions (Hall, Alas, Crespi-Hunt, & Khatchadourian, 2014). The repeated management of potentially traumatic crime and disaster incidents involving assault, injury, or death place police officers at elevated risk of acquiring trauma-induced adjustment and mental health disorders with potentially considerable implications for their welfare and job performance (Arnetz, Nevedal, Lumley, Backman, & Lublin, 2009).  In addition to the negative psychological effects of PTEs, there are physical social and cultural effects that may occur depending on the frequency, intensity, and timing of the trauma (Papazoglou, 2013).

Although there is a plethora of literature on the negative outcomes of PTEs generally and in police officers specifically, less is known about other trajectories, namely resilience and posttraumatic growth (Westphal & Bonanno, 2007).  Regarding resilience, or helping individuals get back to their baseline level of functioning (Hall, Alas, Crespi-Hunt, & Khatchadourian, 2014), attention has been given to officers’ stress management strategies. Officers use both adaptive methods of managing occupational stressors (e.g., talk therapy) and maladaptive emotion management coping methods (e.g., suppression of thoughts and feelings) (Patterson, Chung, & Swan, 2014). Often police officers develop their own subculture due to the specific and challenging demands of their work and less frequently verbalize their experiences to mental health clinicians (Andersen & Papazoglou, 2014). Notwithstanding, efforts to promote resilience and stress management in officers have been implemented by clinicians for years and can lead to improvements in fieldwork (Patterson, Chung, & Swan, 2014).

In contrast to the larger literature on stress management and police officers, there is limited knowledge of the potential for growth and how clinicians can promote it in police officers. Posttraumatic growth (PTG) has been defined as action-focused growth in response to a traumatic event (Westphal & Bonanno, 2007; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996). Hall, Alas, Crespi-Hunt, and Khatchadourian (2014) described how PTG positively affects levels of distress, well-being, and many other variables related to mental health. Although it has been widely studied with veterans and the terminally ill, only limited studies were located on PTG in police officers. For example, Chopoko, Palmieri, and Adams (2018) found that PTG in police officers was more associated with events involving a threat to self than events involving a threat to another person. In order to effectively treat law enforcement officers, clinicians need more guidance from the research literature on promoting the psychological response of PTG.

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