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The leading cause of police death: Post-traumatic stress disorder

Nearly a fifth of all active duty police officers suffer from PTSD but many aren’t getting the help they need

 When you’re a police officer, a traffic stop can mean a routine exchange  — or it can mean an attack on your or your partner’s life.

Being first on the scene, whether for gruesome murders, suicides, plane crashes or car accidents, is all in a day’s work for police officers. But for many, there’s a limit to how much tragedy they can take.

The tipping point for many cops — whether it comes as they witness their first or hundredth incident — can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  

PTSD among military veterans has been better documented in recent years. But the same is not always true for police. Some 216,000 officers suffer from PTSD or some other form of emotional stress says Ron Clark, a retired Connecticut state trooper who now runs Badge of Life, a group that studies PTSD among police. In many cases, the disease can force officers toward destructive behavior or into retirement. It can also turn deadly. More than 1,400 officers have taken their own lives in the past decade, with PTSD as a leading contributing factor, according to Badge of Life.

“No department in the United States has ever recognized that an officer died from PTSD. Not one. Not one department. That's inconceivable,” Clark said. “You can't send a person into harm's way, and not support them. You can't do that. You can't. [But] they've done it,” Clark said.

But many police officers with PTSD aren’t even aware they have a problem; they remain on the street, doing their job, often without help or support. It’s part of many departments’ cultures to “just deal” with what happens on the job, says Mike, a former New York cop whose PTSD didn’t emerge until after he left the force. (Mike asked America Tonight not to use his last name, citing safety concerns.)

He abused drugs and alcohol, looking for an escape from the haunting memories of responding to tragic emergencies. The images pile up and play like a slideshow in his mind, he says: Being first on the scene of an accident that killed a mother, her toddler and an unborn child; taking an accident report after a 90-year-old man was hit and killed by a car as he crossed the street to his mailbox.

 “In my mind I was just living my life. But it was affecting my family big time,” Mike said.

He was eventually arrested, accused of impersonating a police officer after putting on his old drug enforcement jacked and parking in front of someone’s house as if he were on a stakeout.

“I was mentally unstable,” he says. 

He says there aren’t many voices suggesting that the depression, anger, confusion and helplessness that follow a traumatic event can be the result of trauma from the job. Officers can also be reluctant to pursue treatment, for fear of losing work benefits or being seen as a weak link on the police force. There’s often little protection from the department if officers come forward with injuries no one can see.

“We know there's, there's a cumulative traumas. There's, there's cops out there that still wake up with nightmares and everything. We could fill a stadium with officers that are probably retired with PTSD,” Clark said.

The consequences of not dealing with the disease can be explosive, to the officer, the officer’s family and potentially, people on the street.

“There's a risk to society. Because these police officers are, are highly stressed out. And now you're probably off the chart [with] flashbacks coming.”

Department suicides among those with PTSD are also reported at twice the rate of officers killed directly in the line of duty.

There’s a growing movement among some law enforcement organizations, police psychologists and police departments to better address PTSD and make changes to protect the health and wellness of officers. America Tonight traveled across the country to talk to police officers struggling with PTSD — and struggling to get the help they need.

Triggers are everywhere, Mike says. “It's impossible to take that magic pill and get all this out of your head.”

Edited and produced online by Erica R. Hendry. 

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