For three days this week, about 20 local law enforcement officers will gather in Orono to learn ways to take care of their own mental health.
The free training, sponsored by the National Association on Mental Illness of Maine and the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Association, will help cops cope with the routine stress of their job. The stress that literally wears down their bodies and their minds, causing high rates of depression and shaving 11 years off their average life expectancy, according to studies published in several academic journals.
“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” said Bangor Sgt. Wade Betters, who is attending the training, from March 28 to 30 at the Black Bear Inn.
Paul Pinette, the clinical social worker leading this sessions, plans to “give cops the language” to talk to each other in non-judgmental ways. That “peer support” has been shown to help boost the immune system, he said, and could deter officers from taking up unhealthy alternative methods of coping, like drinking and smoking.
Betters said it’s a strategy his own department plans to use as it forms an in-house stress management team. “No one understands what officers go through better than other officers,” he said.
When an officer arrives at a bad car crash — or a drug overdose, or a bank robbery — his or her brain snaps into a state of heightened vigilance, flooding the body with the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and sending the heart racing and the officer into “fight or flight” survival mode, Pinette said.
It’s a primitive biological response that’s designed to allow a person to focus under pressure. It’s what Orono Police Captain Dan Merrill calls “cop-mode.” But the body was never designed for it to happen over and over again.
“It’s a protective factor and their Achilles heel,” explained Pinette, who works at the Saco-based Maine Psychological Trauma Institute.
Over time, bathing the body in those high-stress chemicals isn’t good for a person’s immune system or general health. And it’s why cops are more likely to develop health problems that cause them to die earlier than their civilian counterparts, Pinette said.
Stress affects the mind as well as the body. Nationally, one in four police officers has reported suicidal thoughts, and according to the American Journal of Criminal Justice, are twice as likely to take their own lives than the general public. Officers are especially vulnerable during the first year of their retirement when they have time to reflect.
Police are also at a higher risk of developing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which affects 3.5 percent of the general population but 19 percent of law enforcement officers, according to a study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.
There is no easy fix. No cure exists for PTSD, and doctors can’t reverse what stress has already done to the body. But officers can find ways to relieve stress — one way is to talk about their problems.
“Even though there’s that brotherhood, it hasn’t been culturally okay to talk about having a hard time,” he said, recalling his own father’s career as a state trooper.
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