BADGE OF LIFE - Police Stress vs Trauma

A Study of Police Suicide in 2008-2016
Girl's Letter to School
Police Suicide - What It ISN'T
Master Police Coaches - Building a Better Cop
PTSD - The "Hidden Injury"
Police Suicide - Making a Difference
The Importance of Therapy
Police Suicide - the SOLUTIONS
Interview with the BOL Chairman
So-Called "Helpers"
2016 Police Suicide Study
Annual Mental Health Checks
Stigma - The Human Stain
2016 Police Suicides: the NSOPS Study
Police Stress vs Trauma--a difference?
Does PTSD Cause Violence? from the Badge of Life
A New Police Suicide Prevention Program for the 21st Century
Police Suicide, Just a Bad Choice?
Chiefs Lead the Way
"Bring a Buddy"
Cumulative PTSD - a Silent Killer
Dealing with a Suicidal Police Officer

Badge of Life Police Suicide Prevention


Is there a difference between “stress” and “trauma” in police work?  Absolutely. 

When we’re dealing with police mental health and suicide, it’s important that we understand and be able to communicate exactly what it is we’re talking about. One of the terms constantly, and casually, thrown around is the word "stress." In police suicide prevention programs and literature, "stress" means everything from your dog, Spot, getting loose in the neighborhood to the multiple fatality accident that happens before your eyes.

There are several reasons for this.  "Stress" is a nice, polite term. No one chokes on their coffee when you say they might experience stress on their next shift.  Everyone knows they won't commit suicide because of stress--only the other guy will. 

So we can slide things by very smoothly.  Be aware of the signs of stress and suicide--and watch for them in the other guy.

That's ok if that's all you want to do, but we suspect the truly well intentioned instructor and peer support officer really does want to get the true message of mental health across.  And to do that, we have to speak clear english.

The key is this: “Stress happens.”  Trauma “happens to you,” and can kill you.

STRESS:   “Stress” is an everyday occurrence in every occupation and at every age.  Stress happens in learning, in household work and hobbies, in negotiating traffic, and in our everyday work.  Stress is inescapable.  It happens at varying levels.  The salesman, the pool sweeper, the cop and the candlestick maker all feel stress during their days.  Eustress, we know, is “good stress” exhibited in preparation for an athletic event, positive activities or goal planning.  Everyday negative stressors can be managed through a variety of well-known methods, such as good diet, moderation in habits, regular exercise, hobbies, a class in organization, or even self-help books.  Kevin Gilmartin’s book, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, for example, contains good lessons on dealing with everyday stress and relax from their job by utilizing personal planning calendars for family activities, engaging in exercise programs and controlling spending patterns.

TRAUMA:  Unlike stress, no amount of good dieting, exercise or planning calendars, however, will keep emotional trauma from playing havoc on your mind.  The trauma that causes PTSD is not simply an injury to one’s “feelings.”  It is physical as well as emotional—damage is actually done to the brain.

Stress does not lead to PTSD.  Trauma leads to PTSD.*  The trauma can be one incident or the incidents can be cumulative.  The “critical incident” has distinct advantages, as a “headliner,” because everyone takes notice and CISM teams jump into action.  The odds of swift therapy and recovery are enhanced.  Cumulative or mixed trauma, on the other hand, takes place over years and is a “witch’s brew” that can lead to a lifetime of nightmares.

CONCLUSION:  We need to be clear in our terms.  If we’re talking about stress, let’s talk about it: the patrol cars aren’t being serviced often enough, we don’t like a certain policy, or we’ve had to work three holidays in a row.  We can certainly help an officer talk these things out.  Perhaps we’re approached by an officer whose teenager is rebellious and staying out late.  This is stress. 

When we learn the officer’s teenager has been killed, however, we are dealing with a trauma.

If we, as educators and peer support officers, are careless in our terminology, we will only feed the confusion that has kept police mental health and suicide prevention a world of unnecessary mystery and confusion.  Let’s make sure we’re clear on what we’re talking about.


*With any disorder is the possibility of co-occurring depression and other disorders. 

 Further reading on: Breaking the Mold.

Badge of Life Police Mental Health

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