"Anger will kill you. People who are angry have three times the mortality rate of those who are not. Your body is always ready for the tiger," said James Reese, PhD, who spent 18 years as an FBI agent and is currently a stress management consultant. He was standing before a packed room of uniformed police officers at UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School (NJMS) on November 10. "Is your anger worth dying for?" he asked.
Reese was there to talk about the ongoing stress of policing urban streets, of being always ready for danger on the job, frequently witnessing violence, shouldering the large responsibility of protecting others, working as part of a big police force that doesn't always seem to recognize or reward good work, and of sometimes losing the ability to switch gears when the work shift is done. This is the kind of stress and anger that may have driven one Newark police officer, Sgt. Herberto Gonzalez, 32, to shoot and kill his girlfriend, Magaliz Laboy, 33, a fellow officer, and himself last February, an act which had repercussions throughout the force. There was a recognition that stress was running high among the city's uniformed police.
Wrestling every day with danger, fear, human suffering, irregular work schedules and frequent negative feedback from the public take their toll, Reese stated. "You are walking around with a handgun, making life and death decisions," he said. "You function as a chief executive, but you're often not treated like one."
It's not uncommon for the stress of the job to impact on relationships with a spouse, children, friends and fellow workers, he explained. But police officers have a hard time asking for help. In order to function well in their jobs, they must feel in control and invulnerable, he said. Nationwide, police officers commit suicide at three times the rate of the general population.
The purpose of the seminar was to convince the officers that when times get tough, it's okay to ask for help. The Violence Institute of NJ at UMDNJ provided a seed grant to set up the seminar and to establish a confidential dedicated hotline for Newark police officers who feel they need mental health services. Ernesto Amaranto, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at NJMS, is principal investigator, and Cherie Castellano, MS, CSW, is project coordinator of the grant.
As a follow-up on Reese's seminar, there will be a lecture series on various topics including stress management, crisis intervention, post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic violence and substance abuse. A research component of the grant will measure the effects of these programs on the use of the dedicated hotline and treatment services for the police officers. Lecturers will also visit the precincts where the police work and are invited to ride in a police car overnight in order to become more familiar with what the police encounter.
Reese also spent some time meeting with top police force administrators to discuss the officers' major concerns, and to impress upon them the importance of confidential mental health services.
"I try to convince officers and administrators that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness," he explained. "It takes strength to say, 'I'm afraid,' or 'I may have made a mistake,' or 'I can't stop bringing the work troubles home,' or 'I've witnessed something awful and I just need to talk.' And I tell them not to wait for the eleventh hour," he said, "because things just might get out of control at 10:30."