A “little bit” of PTSD?

Telling people they have “a little bit of PTSD” is like telling people with a sunburn that they have “a little bit of a third degree burn.” Like they say in the insurance commercial, “That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.”

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is probably one of the most misunderstood maladies of our time, and it is certainly one of the most serious problems facing first responders. PTSD consists of a complex set of symptoms that are brought on by a traumatic event, and it can cause a person to suffer significant impairment in the ability to function in one or more areas of daily living. The problem is that, while most emergency services personnel who experience a traumatic event will never develop PTSD, most of them have either diagnosed themselves or have been led to believe that they do have PTSD.

It is true that traumatic events (in the emergency services world we call them “critical incidents”) happen, and many first responders are exposed to them frequently. It is also true that the majority of individuals exposed to a critical incident will experience at least some symptoms of critical incident stress. Another term used to identify this type of stress is post-traumatic stress. That’s where a lot of the confusion comes in, because people tend to confuse common symptoms of post-traumatic stress with PTSD; hence, someone with a few symptoms or even mild symptoms is often told that they have “a little bit of PTSD” when, in fact, they do not.

After a critical incident, people may suffer a variety of symptoms that can be classified as:

• Critical incident stress (post-traumatic stress). These symptoms may include confusion or difficulty concentrating, memory problems, gastro-intestinal issues, difficulty controlling emotions, change in eating or sleeping habits, mood swings, social withdrawal, etc. The good news is that these symptoms are usually not particularly severe, and the vast majority of people find these symptoms are gone within a week to 10 days.

• Acute Stress Disorder. Those whose symptoms do not go away within that shorter time frame should be evaluated for what is known as Acute Stress Disorder. This disorder is possible, and typically is indicated by not only the duration of symptoms, but the intensity of the symptoms. The good news is here is that “acute” means the problem is only short-term, and the symptoms are gone within 30 days.

• Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is obviously the most serious of the 3 stress-related disorders listed here. A legitimate diagnosis of PTSD cannot be made until at least 30 days have passed since the onset of symptoms. Beyond that, the type of event that leads to a diagnosis of PTSD is very specific, and the type and intensity level of symptoms associated with PTSD are also very specific and are found in the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). The good news here is that research shows that even though all emergency services personnel are exposed to the kinds of incidents that may lead to the development of PTSD, the percentage who actually can be diagnosed with this disorder is around 12-15%, according to the National Center for PTSD.

If you are suffering from stress-related symptoms and want more information, please feel free to reach out to us by sending a message to our social media page, or through our website at callforbackup.org. Now is the time to understand what is really going on. It’s time to call for backup.

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Can it be this simple?

I grew up in Motown, listening to Motown music, and I still remember hearing Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 singing “ABC.” It has me asking the question today, “Can making a difference in the phenomenon of law enforcement suicide be that simple? I didn’t say “easy,” I said “simple.” And the answer is, there are 3 simple steps to bringing down the number of police suicides (and suicides of other first responders as well).

A – Address the Issue. Suicide among first responders is the issue that “we are not supposed to talk about.” But until we address the fact that we lose more officers to suicide each year than in the line of duty, and that research shows that 41% of officers would consider suicide an option, we will never make a difference.

B – Build Trust. Trust comes from relationships, and there is no stronger bond that the one that exists between fellow police officers. They can talk to one another because they understand one another. That’s why officers tell us – by a 4 to 1 margin – that they would rather have voluntary participation in an effective peer-to-peer support program than to be forced to have mandatory annual meetings with a mental health professional hired by their department.

C – Change the Culture. The number one reason officers don’t reach out for help when they should is because of the stigma associated with mental wellness. Departments need to stop punishing officers who need to talk to someone about their struggles. The culture of shame because of some perceived “weakness” has to change!

This is the motivation behind our unique Call for Backup Suicide Awareness and Prevention Campaign. We are well on our way to reaching our goal of presenting this program in all 50 states within the first 5 years (we are now in our second year). If you’re interested in bringing this program to your department or agency, or interested in having the founder speak at an event, simply send us a message and we’ll respond as soon as possible.

Slaying the Stigma

by guest author Jonathan Hickory

I just want to be real with you.  I understand why cops are killing themselves.  I understand because I have been all the way to the end of that dark, desolate road.  The only difference, the only saving grace, the only thing that saved me in that moment—was a fellow officer who gave me a mission of hope.

The voices whispered into my thoughts, “just end it all…this life…there’s no point..there is no hope…with all the darkness you have seen…with the wretch of a person you have become..there is no hope for you.

Lies.  But I almost believed them.  And in that moment, I received a sneak preview of Hell itself.  Though I had begun to refuse to acknowledge the existence of a higher power, in my heart I still clung to a belief in a Creator..and Heaven…and Hell.

A grizzly, gruff Lieutenant in my department recognized my despair and heard my plea for help one day.  I was in the midst of an internal investigation and I was convinced my career was over, my wife would leave me, and my daughter would be taken from me.

Drowning in alcohol abuse, depression, rage, and darkness, I could see no hope—no way out.  I asked my Lieutenant, “How am I supposed to deal with this? I don’t know what to do.”  I was cautious not to let him see how much I was hurting inside—that I was crying out for help.  I didn’t want him to know the true pain in my heart, for I was so ashamed that I wasn’t tough like him.

Before I knew it, my Lieutenant had made a call to our department’s police psychologist and had given my name and number over to the “Cop Doc.”  Now, I felt like I had a directive from my leader—Go get help. 

Soon, I found made my first appointment with the Cop Doc.  I found myself sitting in a rickety chair in a small office in an old townhouse that had been converted for commercial use.  The soft noise from a noise making machine drowned any conversation in the tiny office from leaking through the paper thin hollow door.  Through heavy tears, I poured out my soul to this man who was supposed to be the enemy…this supposed “quack;” the police psychologist.

The Cop Doc let me finish, he listened and he acknowledged my pain.  He did not try to minimize it, and he did not brush it off or tell me to “tough it out, suck it up.”  The Cop Doc was the perfect balance of reality, compassion, and understanding.  He walked with me through the darkness and he pulled me out of the bottom of the deepest, darkest pit I have ever been in.  Slowly, I put my armor back on.

In the weeks that followed, the Cop Doc allowed me to text him directly and treated me as a friend and not a patient.  He never wrote anything down and he assured me that all we discussed was completely confidential.   He was my only friend at a time when I had none.

Soon afterwards, I began attending church and committed my life to God.  But I kept going to see the Cop Doc; I knew he could help me.  For the first time in so, so long, I felt hope.  To this day, I still have a relationship with my Cop Doc, and I am thankful for his friendship and for the simple fact that he will always stand by my side.

Today, I am a survivor.  My life is back on track, and I’m still a cop.  I love my job and I love helping people and making a difference every day.  I still face the darkness and the impossibilities of this job, but the new light shining from within me will never be extinguished.  My fellow brothers and sisters, we MUST DESTROY the STIGMA.  We are NOT weak if we ask for help.  We are all human and we are all broken.

Your badge is a shield, but it will not shield you from the trauma and the darkness we face.  We must seek help when we are hurting, and we must surround ourselves with a support network that will always uplift us and extend a lifeline of hope when we find ourselves in troubled waters.  Seeking help is the only weapon we have against the enemy of suicide.

To learn more information about this author, visit https://JonathanHickory.com

 

 

Another hero died today . . .

by guest author Karen Solomon

Another hero died today; his name is but a whisper on the wind. His children will walk alone to the first day of school, his daughter will not have an escort to Prom, the family will lose their house due to financial difficulties and be unable to make the payment on their health insurance benefits. Who was this hero? He was one of 297 since January 1, 2017 to die. They were Field Training Officers, School Resource Officers, Medal Winners and Officers of the Year. They were guardians of their community and gave their life to service. They are now forgotten.

Why have we cast them aside? They died by their own hand. Suicide.

His obituary read he “had a tight brotherhood within his department that loved and admired him.” Today, that brotherhood has abandoned his wife and daughters, they’ve seen no one since the funeral. His widow is battling in court to receive his benefits; his department is claiming that he died because of marital issues. They’ve ignored the critical incidents he’d been involved in the year prior to his death, they’ve forgotten that he was shot at and nearly killed 3 days before his death. Three days before he went to work and finished the job himself.

And what of the precious young boy who adored his dad? The one who now believes that suicide is his solution? The one whose Dad had post-traumatic stress and was no longer able to cope? They’ve already lost their home, his grandparents blame his mother, he’s caught in a web of destruction with no way out.

Why aren’t we helping these families? Why has the line blue line evaporated?

Are we in too much pain ourselves? Do we not know what to say? Or are we simply ignorant to the fact that these officers should not be judged by the way they died? The families crave the same treatment as any other death; support, a helping hand, a shoulder to cry on, continued friendship. At the loneliest time in their lives, they want nothing more than the knowledge that they still matter.

More than 50% of the families we’ve spoken to were denied honors at the funerals, lost their benefits and have been abandoned by their departments. We don’t pretend to believe all the suicides were caused solely by the job; we do know with certainty that many were. We also know that the career was a contributing factor in many others, the inability to seek help, the fear of reprisal and the belief that police officers “are held to a higher standard”.

The chart below indicates that heart attacks are caused by the job, a physical ailment. At what point is a mental ailment caused by the job? How many more officers must take their own lives in their cruisers and at the station before we admit that these officers should not be abandoned in life, and their families should most certainly not be abandoned in death.

Count

Is the suicide count accurate? No. We only know what’s reported to us.

In 2019, Blue H.E.L.P. will host a dinner at Police Week to honor the service of those we lost to suicide, scholarships will be awarded to children of these officers, families will meet with others that understand what they’ve been through. It’s never been done before. What greater gift to give than for you to find a way to show your support for these families? Seek them out in your community, offer them your friendship and compassion. Do what is rarely done – give them back the blue line.

If you are struggling with the stresses of the job, reach out to us by sending a message to our Facebook page.  It’s time to call for backup!

The disease . . . and the Cure

By guest author Jonathan Hickory

I glance over at the clock, but my vision is so blurred that I can barely read the time because I’m so drunk.  In less than an hour, I have consumed an entire bottle of wine and I am now working on my second beer.  That familiar feeling, that numbness, is one that I welcome every night.  I can forget about all the pain, all the hurt, all the worries for a while.  When I sober up, I’ll wish I wasn’t such a slave to alcohol.  I’ve tried to quit so many times and I cannot.  Alcohol has me trapped in a timeless prison.  I finally drag myself to bed, unsteady and still feeling a bit sick.  I don’t usually throw up, but I overdid it tonight.  I hope my wife didn’t hear me as I vomited in the toilet.  I am breathing so hard as I lie in bed, I feel like my heart might stop.  Oh well, maybe I won’t ever wake up…and maybe that’s not a bad thing.

The paragraph you just read is a glimpse into my life.  Four years ago, I was drowning my demons in an ocean of alcohol.  I had been an alcoholic for over ten years, and a police officer for twelve.  Alcohol, anger, depression, darkness, and brokenness were destroying me and, worse, my family.  I felt there was no way out, and I had nowhere to turn.

One dark afternoon, the battle for my soul was raging as I seriously considered killing myself for the first time.  And at that moment, I was fortunate enough to recognize the existence of one of the darkest, evil spirits in the room with me.  I shudder to think of that presence, even now.  The ominous, silent, cold presence of eternal death lay in the shadows.  I cried out.  God, help me.  I cannot do it anymore.

As police officers, it is in our very nature to be the one to fix any problem that comes our way.  We can take any situation, handle it, and be home in time for supper—well, most of the time.  We often don’t think twice about the suicide scene with the pooled, sticky blood as thick as paint mixed with molasses, still dripping from the cavernous hole in the victim’s head.  As a coping mechanism in the moment, we may even have a nervous laugh about that piece of brain matter we almost stepped on—that was a close one!

When we get home, when all the action is over, and the next shift has taken over the street, we collapse at the end of the day like a sack of potatoes in zero gravity.  As we grasp the transition back into “normal human” mode, we can’t help but re-process all of those graphic images.  We wonder whatever will become of the suicide victim’s wife and children, and will they ever recover from this?  Why can’t we just shut it out?  Why can’t we just move on with more important things, like what’s new and trending on Netflix?

As tough, seasoned, or strong as you may think yourself to be, you are still a human being.  And as a human being, you cannot turn off the way you were created.  You know these traumatic incidents are taking a toll on your soul and on your ever-hardening heart.  But that’s just the job, and there’s nothing you can do about it, right?  Besides, if you even tried talking to someone about it, they’d laugh at you, or maybe just stare.  “You’re a cop.  Suck it up, tough it out.  You gotta let that stuff roll off your back like water off a duck’s back.”

As much as you try, you can’t ignore how much you hurt inside.  If you continue to try to fix yourself like you do every other problem, you will fail.  And when you do, it’s going to be ugly.  You may not wind up dead, but I guarantee stuff won’t be pretty.  Failed marriages, children’s behavioral problems, substance abuse, and general dysfunction soon follow.  Heroes don’t deserve to live like that.

So, what’s the answer?  How do you treat this sickness inside?  How do you survive?  Turning to the world will only lead to self-destruction and dysfunction. The only place we can turn is to Him who made us; who knows our hearts, our sorrow and struggle.

To learn more about how Jonathan was freed from alcohol and suicidal thinking, check out his book Break Every Chain on Amazon.

If you are struggling with the stress of the job, reach out to us at Call for Backup.  Our team of peer support specialists is ready to help.  Or you can text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor.  It’s free, confidential, and available 24/7.  It’s time to call for backup.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jonathan Hickory is a Master Police Officer with the Albemarle County Police in Charlottesville, Virginia.  With over 15 years of police experience, Jonathan is a Field Training Officer, as well as a member of the department’s peer support team.  Jonathan has been married to his wife Stacy for over 14 years and has two children.