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Moral Injury in Law Enforcement: The Mental Health of Police and Correctional Officers

While quite a bit of research has gone into understanding moral injury and its effects, many of these studies have been geared toward soldiers and combat veterans. Recently, however, studies are finding evidence of moral injury in other professions rife with the potential to witness or experience a traumatic event. These include first responders, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, as well as police officers and correctional officers. Moral injury in law enforcement is a growing issue.

By understanding what moral injury is, the signs and symptoms displayed by officers dealing with moral injury, and potential treatment options, departments can better train supervisors and help officers struggling with moral injury.

The problem of moral injury in law enforcement

Moral injury is the psychological trauma that occurs when an individual is forced to transgress deeply held personal beliefs, either through action or inaction. Moral injuries are sometimes referred to as “deep soul wounds,” and are associated with a wide spectrum of feelings and emotions, including:

  • Shame
  • Inadequacy
  • Distress
  • Self-blame
  • Withdrawal
  • Guilt
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Remorse

Those working in law enforcement, no matter what capacity, will face difficult situations that could very well lead to moral injury. While the effects of trauma are beginning to be explored in all roles of law enforcement, including 911 dispatchers, this article focuses on moral injury in police officers and corrections officers.

Moral injury and police officers

Police officers routinely encounter criminal and violent acts as part of their jobs. Consistent exposure to these stressors can have a significant impact on an officer’s physical and mental well-being. Some potential stressors that officers have identified include the inability to rescue a seriously injured victim, the use of force on a suspect, lethal or otherwise, or following orders that go against their personal beliefs, such as breaking up a protest.

One of the most traumatizing experiences reported by police personnel, however, is making a mistake that leads to a colleague’s injury or death.

After experiencing a traumatic event, police officers experiencing moral injury may begin to question the importance of their work. Additionally, it is common for officers to have feelings of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization. Due to these factors, as well as the symptoms discussed above, such as self-blame, anxiety, and remorse, police officers are likely to experience burnout.

From a system wide view, this could lead to staffing shortages among police departments, putting even more strain on the officers in the field.

For police departments seeking to reduce the incidence of moral injury in law enforcement, there are several strategies that research has found effective.

First, ensure your personnel receive professional help. Partnering with police-focused mental health professionals can give officers the one-on-one attention their mental health needs. These professionals can also help educate trainers and supervisors on best practices regarding moral injury.

Second, encourage officers to engage in self-care activities. These can range from journaling, exercise, or exploring hobbies, to more emotionally charged pursuits like seeking amends or communicating with a religious leader from the officer’s faith.

Moral injury among correctional officers

Just like police officers, correctional officers work in high-risk scenarios and often jeopardize their own safety in order to perform their duties. In fact, studies have shown that over 90% of correctional officers fear that their roles will cause them to encounter infectious disease, such as Hepatitis and HIV. These same studies also showed a general fear of victimization by inmates or co-workers.

However, these threats seem to vary depending on the facility in which an individual correctional officer works.

Considering these job-related challenges, it’s little wonder that moral injury is prevalent in this branch of law enforcement. The high rate of stress and moral injury among correctional officers has implications for their overall health.

In a study performed by UC Berkeley, 41% of correctional officers were at risk for high blood pressure, 28% reported symptoms of depression, and 33% exhibited at least one symptom of PTSD. Many also reported that stress from their job had caused tensions at home and feeling disconnected from loved ones.

These symptoms also can contribute to high turnover among correctional officers. This, in turn, may lead to a higher inmate-to-officer ratio, which can increase job-related stress for the officers who remain on the job.

The best way to help correctional officers is to provide opportunities for support and training. This could include partnering with mental health professionals as well as educating officers about strategies for managing stress, trauma, and PTSD, as well as improving personal nutrition and exercise.

Recognize and address moral injury in law enforcement

Awareness of the risks of moral injury among those in law enforcement can encourage preventive actions and timely support. As both police and correctional officers have to consistently put themselves in harm’s way to perform their duties, these jobs are rife with conditions that may force individuals to transgress their own morality. Remember, these events can include the use of force, being unable to help a colleague or an individual under their care, or making decisions that affect the survival of others.

If officers under your supervision experience these types of events, make sure to address the situation and their feelings surrounding it and give them avenues to seek help.


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