Divorce Rate and Police with PTSD

Who will take care of our officers with PtSD? 

Their families? I know mine would have if they knew what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was.  Your average or normal person cannot share our experiences, they can’t imagine what we do or see.  Many officers try to treat their condition with alcohol or reckless behavior.  They use the alcohol to turn off the noise, shut out the visions, and thoughts.  As a result they use reckless behavior to punish themselves and sometimes push themselves to the point of suicide.   Where was the family?  The family was along for a ride they knew nothing about.  A ride they didn’t expect or want.


In a recent Time article, the Divorce rate in the United States has dropped to a nearly 40 year low.  While this is true, there is data missing. Most researchers find that the typical marriage has a 50% chance of lasting. 

In police officers with PTSD, it’s a different story.  The police divorce rate is much higher than the national average.  Some reports have the divorce rate above 70%. No one knows the true number since many cases of PTSD go undiagnosed.

Experts say PTSD has harmed many families, “We see higher rates of divorce, family strain and social isolation,” reports Dr. Ash Bender, medical director of the psychological trauma program at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, “You lose your ability to feel pleasure and love”.

At no fault of the spouse, since many officers and families don’t know the symptoms of PTSD, they only observe the marriage as failing, or that the officer has changed and has become more angry, distant and combative; the spouse in many ways becomes frustrated with the relationship and finds a way out.  Sometimes justified on their part, the officer’s actions can include extreme alcoholism and physical abuse, characteristics that were never present in the relationship prior.  

What are the issues?

The abuse does not always manifest as physical abuse, but can also be psychological.  Often, officers with PTSD look for outlets to relieve the pain and issues with daily life and PTSD. Frequently that’s where infidelity, alcohol and sometimes drug abuse comes in.

Many times, the family does not know about the PTSD because it does not always come from one traumatic incident.  PTSD can develop over time into cumulative PTSD.  The day in and day out of seeing the pain of others, the death of adults and children can take a toll on the officers.  In addition to the stress of kids, bosses, bills and all other aspects of normal life, it builds up. 

Each person is different in how they deal with the stress, but sometimes the officer and spouse never realizes the PTSD at any level.  This often ends up in divorce and the breaking up of families.

Untreated, this adds even more stress to the officer with PTSD.  Officers often choose two routes, isolationism, keeping to themselves or, acting out.   The officer that acts out can be even more dangerous to themselves in some ways.  Many times, they will drink and get into fights or, drink until they pass out trying to forget the battle they are fighting in their minds.  On average 120 officers a year commit suicide. It’s also estimated that 70% of all officers that develop PTSD end up in divorce, in financial ruin, and are separated from their department within five years.

What can be done?

In conclusion, early understanding with the officers and families is crucial.  Learning the signs of PTSD even in the preliminary stages can do much for the officer, the families, the department, and society.  Officers that develop full-blown PTSD create divorce, broken homes, financial issues that cost everyone.  These officers can even strike out at work causing troubles with their department and possible financial obligations for taxpayers by way of legal claims. 

It’s very important that all officers, both new and the ones that have been on the job for years, understand the signs of PTSD not only in themselves but their partners, and how to seek help at all levels.  It’s also important that significant others understand the job and the signs of PTSD.  With early detection and support it is possible to avoid divorces and broken homes. 

Most police departments have psychological personnel that can help the officer, but many are reluctant to go that route.  The other routes are personal consolers, peers, and groups like CopStress.  CopStress offers anonymous peer to peer support and information on how to deal with PTSD.  


About the Author:

Rick Willard is a retired Detective Sergeant from the Baltimore City Police.  In his 20 years in law enforcement he worked in patrol, drug units, and HIDTA DEA Taskforce.  After being promoted to sergeant he oversaw a drug unit, was in charge of a non-fatal shooting squad, developed the city’s Gun Trace Taskforce, and ran a specialized unit building cases on murder suspects that evaded prosecution.   While he was developing cumulative PTSD from the violence officers see on a daily basis his full blow PTSD did not develop until Ash Wednesday of 2005 when he was involved in a shootout with a suspect.  His life spiraled out of control and it lead him to over 3 years of counseling and reading many books on PTSD and how to treat it.  He along with several others started CopStress to offer peer support to officers. He is currently the Chief Operations Officer overseeing peer support, training, and rapid response to critical incidents around the country.