The Chief
December 7, 2001



Taking Arms Against Stress

The Police Department is to be commended for ordering all employees to receive mental-health counseling as a result of the stresses many of them are feeling in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.

Cops and NYPD civilian employees alike are dealing with emotional problems that range from what some witnessed as part of the rescue effort to the trauma of having friends, relatives and colleagues killed. There is also the psychological strain endured by those working at Ground Zero over the past three months and the milder by nonetheless serious stress that employees forced to work longer hours than usual have had to deal with.

As noted by Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch, even those - as he did - who took part in the rescue efforts and acquitted themselves admirably sometimes are troubled by the mere fact that they lived while others who were working nearby were less fortunate. Police work is always stressful because of the danger that it entails, but to have so many colleagues, including firefighters and Port Authority cops, killed in the Trade Center collapses obviously presented a level of grief and anxiety far beyond what officers previously experienced.

Making the counseling mandatory - a practice the Fire Department would do well to adopt - goes a long way in removing any stigma attached to seeking help. This is especially important because the culture of the NYPD has long instilled in officers a belief that even if it is not a sign of weakness to seek psychological counseling, it will nonetheless be perceived that way by their supervisors.

The reluctance to get such counseling - particularly in-house - has been coupled with another aspect of police culture: the use of alcohol to relieve stress. When cops drink to excess as a result, rather than coping with the problem they are potentially creating new ones for themselves. Sometimes it manifests itself directly in crimes committed while driving drunk. It also produces a toll in the form of broken marriages and a suicide rate that is alarmingly high for the profession

There are many reasons that people go to work in the Police Department, but helping others and righting wrongs are among the more common. Inevitably, a city as complex as New York, with a criminal justice system to match, will yield its share of frustrations, disappointments, outrages and heartaches. For many officers, being physically strong or mentally disciplined does not immunize them from the psychological strain this can create.

Acknowledging the need that many of them will have to talk about their feelings since the Trade Center attacks will bring both the NYPD and the people it employs closer to the realization that rather than being a weakness, getting therapy is a large step toward making them stronger and emotionally healthier. Creating that sort of atmosphere should benefit the NYPD, and the citizens it serves, long after the current generation of police employees has retired.