Backing the Blue

A look at mental health in law enforcement

Jess Oaks
Posted 2/23/24

Every day the men and women of law enforcement risk their lives to keep our communities safe. They are faced with some of the most difficult and traumatic experiences, most of us can’t really understand.

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Backing the Blue

A look at mental health in law enforcement


GOSHEN COUNTY – Every day the men and women of law enforcement risk their lives to keep our communities safe. They are faced with some of the most difficult and traumatic experiences, most of us can’t really understand. 

In a sit-down interview with Torrington Police Chief, Matt Johnson and assistant chief, Patrick Connelly, the Telegram discussed stressors officers encounter as they pursue a career in law enforcement. 

“I think one of the first things that is worth talking about is kind of daily dose of negativity,” Johnson explained. “I think for most people in the world, they probably deal with some unpleasant things and some unpleasant people but that’s not the steady diet of what they’re fed day in and day out,” he continued.

“It’s something we can do something about from law enforcement perspective but if we’re not intentional about it everybody we talked to is usually having a really bad day,” Johnson explained. “I mean we rarely show up to celebrate with folks about something great happening. It’s almost always when someone is having their worst day ever.” 

Most officers work long shifts and many of the shifts fall on holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions. Their days are long and stressful. 

“If you think about what a police officer does day in day out of responding to calls for service, they go from one person to the next person to the next person to the next person all of whom are having at least a bad day and sometimes the worst day imaginable and kind of steady diet of awfulness, if you will, can lead to some really significant consequences down the road of really negative outlook, unhappy officers and to me I think most significantly it can isolate police officers from their community,” Johnson explained. 

It’s even possible for officers to isolate from their own families, Johnson added. 

Over the years, law enforcement has taken a new approach to mental health. 

“Pat and I started in law enforcement at a time when, I don’t know the best way to describe it but maybe the ‘suck it up’ model policing or the ‘tough guy’ model policing was popular we didn’t acknowledge that we had problems and we didn’t talk about things, we didn’t. We just kept accepting the negativity and never did anything about it I guess for lack of a better way to put that,” Johnson explained. 

“It wasn’t that there was no emphasis on mental health or mental health wellness,” Connelly said. “There was no recognition of a need for it.”

“What you often saw from those cops that had been long term cops in that culture with that mindset of ‘just suck it up and be a tough guy’ is they started off with a circle of people in the world that they knew and trusted that was this big and by the time they retired the circle of people that they knew and trusted was this big if they were lucky it was still them and maybe one or two other people, and they were all cops,” Johnson explained. “They’ve been through substance abuse and suicidal ideations; and three divorces and they lived three years after they retired. That was their life.” 

“Once we started to recognize that as a profession and as a culture, we started being able to do something about it,” Johnson explained. “I think that that daily diet of bad is one of the foundational things that really hits us.”

Johnson also mentioned he believes there are two types of trauma law enforcement officers face today. 

“I think acute and cumulative trauma. Acute, from the standpoint of a short-term event that impacts you right then and there and maybe for a week or a month or whatever afterwards, but I also think that those experiences stack up in a cumulative fashion over time,” Johnson explained. “I mean when you go to an accident scene and find someone who is horribly deceased, when you show up at the house for a baby who’s deceased, when you respond to people who have passed away and are in advanced stages of decomposition to a place where they’re almost not recognizable as human beings, when you see children who have been horrifically victimized and various assaults, when you see women who horrifically victimized by domestic violence, it adds up,” Johnson explained.

Johnson also added sometimes the simplest call can be a personal attack. 

“Sometimes even just the people that we deal with and take into custody the things that they will try to say and do to the officer are almost unimaginable,” Johnson said. “I have had people threaten, I’m speaking just from my experiences rather than the experiences of what other police officers have but, I’ve had people threaten my family, make the most horrific statements imaginable [and they] will do everything they can to do to try to hurt me in any way they can and as much as you can you let that stuff roll off your back but some of it sticks. You can’t keep that from happening,” Johnson added. 

Both Johnson and Connelly agree there is a cycle of trauma in law enforcement.

“I think maybe you get a peak of trauma when you first start,” Johnson explained. “I mean as your first becoming used to seeing dead bodies, seeing horrific scenarios, seeing the most awful things imaginable, there’s almost kind of an early stress and trauma level that really hits you hard for your first couple years and then I think there’s an intermittent period there where you get used to that and in the old days with the ‘suck it up’ mentality that was the expectation,” Johnson said. “You get used to it and you just let that happen for the rest of your career, but I think what we forget is that that cumulative part of it builds overtime.”

Tracy Pannunzio, MA, LPC, is no stranger to mental health. As the wife of a retired law enforcement officer, Pannunzio, hold the combination of law enforcement and mental health close to her heart.

“The obstacles for first responders vary. Vicarious/secondary trauma may have a huge negative impact on the first responder, and they may hold in the symptoms they are experiencing, in order to protect their loved ones from the details. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is very common in first responders,” Pannunzio said. “Many times, the first responder feels alone in dealing with their emotions. This feeling of being alone may lead to an increase in anxiety and depressed mood. There may be a fear that no one else is negatively affected by the trauma the way they are, and that they may appear weak or unfit for duty if they share what they are experiencing with others,” she continued. “In some instances, the low pay, schedule, and shift work cause hardship on the family. Missed holiday dinners, birthday celebrations and children’s extracurricular activities, are just a few additional stressors for the first responder. The spouses and children are not immune to increased stress and symptoms of diminished mental health due to the nature of their loved ones duties as a first responder.”

“I’ve had days where I had to go deal with a teenager who committed suicide and their family is hysterical and lashing out at each other and blaming each other for what happened out of their anger and grief and next thing I know I’m having to go deal with a car crash where the people were angry and screaming at each other and now I’m here and they’re both screaming at me because I’m there and I’m not doing what they want and I didn’t get there quick enough or whatever and then on to some other completely mundane thing that has absolutely nothing to do with anything but I still got all this, you know, other stuff in the back of my head and try and shut that down,” Connelly explained. “That’s what happens with a lot of cops it’s like it’s you’re building up a callus. Which is alright if you lift or weights or do manual labor calluses are good but when it comes to your emotions, you got to have some callous but the problem is for a lot of people in not just in our profession also in in EMS (emergency medical services) and things but we’re dealing with trauma day and out we’re not meant as human beings to be calloused to each other, Connelly continued. “We are meant to be able to experience empathy.” 

“In a perfect world, each member would open up and talk to thier peers. They would be surprised how many members are receiving help for their struggles with mental health. There is a fear that if they ask for help, they will be looked at as unfit for duty or weak,” Pannunzio explained. “In some instances, they may fear that the person they talk to, will not be able to relate to the experiences that are negatively impacting their lives.”

Stressors for law enforcement officers stretches beyond the hours of service. 

“There’s been a lot of studies on this, they talk about a lot when we’re at work you figure out pretty quickly, I’m going to have to deal with horrible stuff. There are people out who going to want to hurt me just because of who I am and what I do so you begin that state of hypervigilance but then on your days off it can be very difficult to shut that off, so you remain in the state of hypervigilance all the time and that just it exhausts you,” Connelly said. “It wears you out and gets you to the point where you can’t sleep and you can’t shut it off when you’re home or in public and it can lead to a lot of long-term mental problems,” he added.

Both Johnson and Connelly have their support systems and coping skills however both highly recommend professional help for first responders. 

Goshen County offers assistance for local first responders.

“The First Responders Employee Assistance Program is available for all members in Goshen County and the WyEAP (Wyoming’s First Responders Network) program is available for members of the Wyoming Highway Patrol. Each of these programs provide a minimum of three free sessions with a Licensed Mental Health Professional,” Pannunzio said. 

WyEAP assists local government and agencies with helping employees access mental health care by a qualified licensed mental health professional, according to their website. 

“My hope is that this same law enforcement officer who so willingly helps others, will realize they also deserve help in their time of need. We all need a hand from time to time,” Pannunzio said. “As a former law enforcement officer, myself, and the wife of a retired lieutenant in law enforcement with 26 years of service, I can speak from personal experience, utilizing the free EAP mental health therapy sessions, helped both of us get through very tough situations we experienced on the job.”

“There is no shame in seeking professional assistance when struggling with mental health issues,” Pannunzio said. “The benefit from processing your experiences will have a positive impact in all settings of the law enforcement officer’s life.” 

For more information on WyEAP, please visit