Kindred Spirits: An Officer and a Therapist
Police officers and psychotherapists have more in common than you might think.
Posted Nov 17, 2018
In February of this year, I transitioned to my first full-fledged job as a psychologist, working as part of a private practice that provides counseling services to police officers and their families. As I had no previous experience in the field of police psychology, I sought out some guidance from one of the leading experts in the field: fellow Psychology Today contributor Ellen Kirschman. Kirschman’s book (co-authored with psychologists Mark Kamena and Joel Fay), Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know, provided a grounding in the unique realities of counseling a law enforcement population. Much of the book is a straightforward guide to working with police officers: treatment strategies, case conceptualizations, specific emotional and psychological circumstances that law enforcement officials face. Yet there was one paragraph just a few pages into the book that struck my curiosity, introducing me to a concept that continues to intrigue me as I grow into my identity as a police psychologist; the remarkable parallels that exist between a career in law enforcement and one in psychotherapy.
Similarities between these two career fields might not readily appear obvious. A psychotherapist typically spends their day inside, conversing with clients verbally while sitting across from one another in the confines of an office. A typical patrol officer is out on the streets, constantly moving from call to call; they go to those in need, rather than those in need coming to them. There is a tremendous physical risk assumed by law enforcement officers; in their pursuit of justice and protecting the public, they put themselves in harm’s way and carry the threat of physical harm with them at all times. Built into the reality of this abounding threat are physical requirements; police officers have to pass physical examinations to prove their bodies are fit to handle the physical demands of the job. Gratefully, there are no fitness standards for psychotherapists, beyond an ability to tolerate being sedentary. The differences are innumerable, so much so that I admittedly never considered the prospect that there would be any kind of meaningful overlap in the nature of these professions.
Not only are there parallels, but the parallels lie at some of the most defining features of these careers and the people who seek them out. Firstly, and perhaps most glaring, is what drives individuals into these fields. When I ask a police officer why they wanted to go into law enforcement, the most common answer I receive is some version of “to help people,” “to make a difference,” or “to serve the community.” How many therapists might respond the same way? Of course, many of the ways that we help people are different, but similarities prevail. Generally, the bulk of the work of psychotherapists and police officers happens at an individual level, in interpersonal interactions, rather than through broad, macro-level mechanisms. As a result, these interactions are unique, never the same as the one before, and consequently cannot necessarily be predicted; in other words, in the day of a therapist or a police officer, anything can happen. Situations can turn on a dime. A client might suddenly disclose active suicidal ideation, a routine traffic stop may turn violent. And so within these individual interactions, both therapists and police officers must be problem solvers, able to act on their feet, improvise at a moment’s notice. This often involves an ability to read people, whether it be their mood, their motives, or their likely reaction. How will the client respond when I inform them that based on their disclosure, I must call an ambulance? What will the driver do if I ask them to get out of the car? Psychotherapists and cops must make continuous judgment calls, adjusting and adapting to how the other person reacts. They are both trained to remain calm in crisis, though the nature of the crisis, and the appropriate responses, are undoubtedly different.
While the crux of the work of psychotherapists and cops may happen on an individual, face-to-face level, it does not happen in a vacuum. Another parallel between these two fields is that they often must contend with large, complex bureaucratic systems which are prone to inefficiencies, injustices, and rigidity. Psychotherapists often work within hospitals, clinics, or other public health settings which are not always driven by the same patient-focused goals as clinicians. Financial considerations of these systems, for example, heavily influenced by health insurance policy and the often inadequate coverage for mental health care can impede and restrict the work of therapists when they conflict with clinical motivators for treatment and care. Even private clinicians are faced with the difficult decision to either deal with the administrative and financial stressors of joining an insurance panel or being less accessible to potential clients in need. The police have their own versions of organizational constrictions that impact their experience of doing the job. Officers may feel frustrated by changes in policies that are meant to save the department money or appear deferential to the public, but ultimately leave officers feeling unprotected, unsupported, or hamstrung in their ability to do thorough work that might best serve the community. Outside of the department, the fickleness of the criminal justice system, and all the dysfunction that comes with it, serves as a further stressor on officer’s experience of being able to enact positive influence on the community. For example, an officer may work hard to make what they feel is a solid arrest, hoping it leads to the appropriate charge and punishment, and spend days if not weeks in court defending it, only for the person to be released based on factors ultimately outside of the officer’s control. For both psychotherapists and law enforcement officials, these types of frustrations create a high likelihood for organizational stress, a significant influence on overall job satisfaction. These distal, indirect forces create an uncomfortable sense of being part of unjust systems that can feel counteracting to the positive change that both psychotherapists and law enforcement officials seek to enact on the community. They each carry with them the frustration of being unable to control, change, or affect these broad-reaching, systemic injustices due to the fact that they are working primarily at the individual level.
Yet perhaps the most relevant and significant similarity between the job of a psychotherapist and that of a law enforcement official is the one that may have the most impact on the individuals who take on these roles: daily exposure to people who are suffering. People attend therapy, for the most part, when they are in pain. Ultimately, therapists are constantly exposed to trauma, grief, stories of abuse, rage, intense anxiety, despair—the gamut of human emotions. The typical police officer is no different. Police officers, like psychotherapists, see people at their worst; victims of abuse or assault, family of those whose loved ones have died or been killed, those committing crimes out of desperation for survival, and often, with significant deinstitutionalization having occurred across the country over the past few decades, the untreated severely mentally ill.
The result of constant exposure to humanity at this level of suffering is high levels of burnout and vicarious trauma for both psychotherapists and law enforcement officials. Related is compassion-fatigue, the tendency to develop apathy towards those you are helping due to overexposure to suffering. While both professions involve chronic exposure to those in various types of physical or emotional pain and suffering, and an ability to tolerate and hold that suffering in both crisis and non-crisis situations, the way that the two fields support healthy and effective management of the inevitable burnout and vicarious trauma is vastly different. Naturally, given that these processes are psychological in nature and it is psychologists who study and research them, psychotherapists tend to work in a culture that understands the risks associated with this type of work and therefore are exposed early in their career to these risks and ways to manage them. In my own graduate school education, the importance of being aware of vicarious trauma, countertransference, and burnout was introduced early on and discussed throughout. Furthermore, the culture that most therapists practice within is supportive of and open to expression of these uncomfortable but common phenomena, encouraging of discussion and the means necessary (therapy, self-care, time-off, etc.) needed to combat them.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the law enforcement culture, which values control of emotions, self-reliance, and the ability to remain detached from scenes and victims and “move on” to the next one with ease. To some extent, these skills are adaptive and necessary in the job of policing, given the sheer volume of trauma, despair, and cruelty that an officer witnesses on a day to day basis. However, often times the standards that law enforcement officials hold themselves and one another to belie their own humanity. Some level of emotional reaction to witnessing trauma is inevitable, and unfortunately, while this is accepted amongst therapists, officers may see normal post-trauma processes as a sign of weakness, a concept which is reinforced in many ways, both big and small, from a departmental level and amongst officers themselves. Consequently, officers will go to great lengths to try to push away these emotions. As Kirschman notes, “the stress of their job often comes from the effort it takes to hide the stress”(p. 9). When appropriate and healthy coping skills are not socially acceptable, harmful habits such as heavy alcohol use or sexually risky behavior prevail.
And so, these two professions, superficially discrepant in so many ways, share a core: helping those in need. The resulting occupational hazard, exposure to human despair and cruelty, is seen by those who take on these roles as a necessary trade-off, accepted willingly in exchange for the chance to help to reduce and prevent suffering. Yet while psychotherapists, for the most part, are allowed to be conscious of, and in turn seek support for, the distress that may be created around being witness to so much human trauma, law enforcement officials are not afforded the same luxury. The law enforcement culture, and greater society at large, continues to stigmatize mental health treatment in a manner that does a great disservice to those individuals who, like therapists, often come into their career with the primary goal of providing a service to the community. As a police psychologist, realizing the deep parallels between my work and the work of my patients, as well as the vastly distinct manner in which our two fields respond to the realities of that work, made me astutely aware of how lucky I am to be able to help those who are suffering while also feeling safe to discuss and explore the emotional impact that the work has on me. There is obviously work to be done for our law enforcement officials, who help those in need all the same, but don’t receive the help and support they need in return. Perhaps it is through understanding the core aspects law enforcement shares with such a seemingly different field that the culture of stigma and reinforcement of emotional suppression can begin to crack.
Kirschman, E., Kamena, M., & Fay, J. (2014). Counseling cops: What clinicians need to know. New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.