The Reality of Tragedy and Crisis

Sadly, first responders, especially in some of America’s most populated metropolitan areas, are no strangers to tragedies and crisis events.  These events may include individual or mass violence, medical emergencies, challenges to law and order, large-scale disasters that are natural or human induced, terrorism, and even warfare.  Communities may experience emergencies that result in either 1) physical destruction, or 2) injury to, and/or loss of, human life.  Of course, emergencies may involve both defining characteristics.  They may serve to challenge, but do not exceed local emergency response capabilities (e.g., fire, emergency medical services, or law enforcement).  Communities may also experience larger scale disasters, differentiated from emergencies largely by the magnitude of their impact; and typically, may be thought of as events that result in a high magnitude of either physical destruction, and/or injury to, and/or loss of, human life.  Disasters cause disruption to social cohesion or community function, and by definition, exceed local emergency response capabilities.

A complete and effective response to emergencies or disasters must include some type of mental health component.  It has been estimated that about 60% of men and 50% of women experience at least one trauma in their lives, according to the National PTSD Center.  Women are more likely to experience sexual assault and child sexual abuse.  Men are more likely to experience accidents, physical assault, combat, disaster, or to witness death or injury.  Of course, in the various professions of first responders, exposure to these types of traumatic incidents are certainly not gender-specific, and the percentage of individuals in those professions who are exposed to a traumatic event is well over the 50-60% national average.

Here is one point that must be made at the onset:  Exposure to a traumatic event does not mean that one must develop PTSD.  Acute reactions to traumatic stress are absolutely normal, but the fact is that even among combat veterans, and even among those living closest to Ground Zero on September 11, 2001, the number who can be officially diagnosed as having PTSD is perhaps as low as 12-15%.  That does not mean, however, that individuals exposed to trauma are not at risk for suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

One of the reasons our #CallForBackup program exists is to explain the normal reactions that we have to both chronic and traumatic stress, and to provide some words of advice, encouragement, aid in the recovery of anyone recently exposed to a crisis event, and to offer some tips on building resilience in preparation for some future, as yet unforeseen event.

Please feel free to contact us with any questions you may have, whether you are struggling with the stresses of the job, or want to find out about bringing any of our training programs to your area.  If you are in crisis now and need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK, or 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.

“It’s Just Stress”

I often say that these 2 words should never be used together in the same sentence: “just stress.”  Every major organization of medical and mental health professionals will tell you that the effects of stress can be damaging to both your mind and to your body.  Adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress response hormones certainly serve a useful purpose (like keep us alive when confronted by danger), but they can also do a great deal of harm if we allow ourselves to remain in a state of stress arousal for too long, or if it is happening too often.  According to the American Psychological Association, if our “fight or flight” response gets stuck in the “on” position, that can have serious consequences for our health.

Sudden emotional stresses, whether caused by a major trigger event like a natural disaster or terrorism, or a fight with a spouse or the sudden news of the loss of a loved one, can trigger something as significant as a heart attack.  Even chronic stress is dangerous because of the wear and tear it places on our bodies.  Persistent headaches, high blood pressure, overeating, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption – all of these are signs that we are not doing very well controlling our responses to our daily stresses.  Problems associated with stress often lead to depression, deterioration of personal relationships, and even more significantly, to suicidal thinking.

What can you do to reduce your stress levels or to improve your ability to return to a more healthy range of stress hormones following a period of stress arousal?  The number one antidote for the things that cause us stress, anxiety, and worry is the ability to focus on things that give us positive feelings like happiness, joy, contentment, and enthusiasm.  Other strategies include:

  • Identify what is cause your stress.  Know what is bothering you, and develop a plan for addressing it.
  • Build strong relationships.  Negative experiences in relationships can be a huge source of stress, but relationships with people who lift you up and encourage you can be a tremendous stress buffer.
  • Walk away when you’re angry.  Literally – walk.  Walking is a simple form of exercise that can increase the production of endorphins, the chemicals that act as a “mood booster” to take the place of the chemicals that act as a “mood buster.”
  • Rest your mind.  Stress keeps people awake at night, and your body and mind need at least five to six 90-minute sleep cycles each night to get recharged and ready for the next day.  Cut down on eating and drinking before going to bed, remove electronic devices from your bedroom, make the room completely dark, and go to bed at the same time each night.  These are some of the tips that will help you get better sleep.
  • Get help.  If you are overwhelmed and are feeling “stuck” in a negative pattern, talk to someone you know and trust about how you are feeling.  We always encourage first responders to talk to someone on the peer support team if their department or agency has one.  But seek professional help, if necessary, if you need help identifying situations or behaviors that contribute to your chronic stress and then develop an action plan for changing them.

I would encourage you to send a message to our Call for Backup program if you’d like some help figuring out an action plan.  If you are in crisis now and need immediate help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK, or text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor.  The service is free, confidential, and available 24/7/365.

It’s never good to stay stuck with “just stress” – it’s time to call for backup.

This Job Will Change You

By Guest Author “The Officer Next Door”

When you are a new police officer you get told many things.  You learn the laws, how to answer calls, what to do in case this happens or that happens.  But one thing they don’t cover enough is the mental health aspect of the job.  Oddly enough, one of the first things I remember being told as a new police officer is, “This job will change you.”

Multiple times over and over I was told that eventually I would look at the world differently and I would change as a person.  They were right.  To be honest, if you didn’t change as a person after becoming a police officer, that would be concerning.  Let me explain.

Once you become a police officer your entire purpose in life is helping people fix their problems.  You respond to situations that are complete and utter chaos.  No one calls the police just to say hello or say thank you.  Furthermore, police officers are called to each and every horrific tragedy that takes place in your community from fatality car accidents, suicides, homicides, sex assaults, child abuse, you name it, they handle it all.  Every.  Single.  Day.

Not every day is horrible.  In fact, every once in a while, things seem to go really well, and no one fights you, hates you, spits on you, or hurls insults at you as you drive down the road.  But then there are “those” days, those days every police officer has that honestly make you question whether the job is really worth doing.  The days you respond to the most horrific scene that makes you sick to your stomach, want to cry, or make you so angry you can’t believe what you are seeing.  Images of dead bodies or abused children that will be forever burned into your mind. But while you are there, you can’t show these emotions.  You can’t cry or shout in anger.  You have to be professional and treat it as a crime scene, or just objects if you will.  This isn’t done out of disrespect to the people hurt or dead, it is done out of self-preservation as a human.

Police officers are human.  They are fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters, just like everyone else.  The emotions they feel while at these crime scenes are real but must be stifled while on-duty.  They must remain professional and appear to be “strong” in order to get the job done or console a witness or victim of a crime.  However, seeing the tragedy and horrific crime scenes take a toll and eventually you change as a person.  You start to think everyone is a potential suspect or a bad person.  You feel like there is only negative in the world.  You become upset more easily or irritable and you aren’t sure why.

Add shift work, long days, and the overall stress of what is called “hyper awareness” during a shift to the mix and you have quite the recipe for changes in a person.  Especially for someone who, before becoming a police officer, didn’t deal with dead bodies and irregular working conditions on a daily basis.

Ultimately, the fact that the people in the profession or in the academy have the foresight to warn you that “this job will change you” is great.  The problem is, they fail to tell you how to deal with the changes in a healthy way.  As I’ve said before, seeing and doing what police officers do on a regular basis is far from normal.  Often times, it is downright awful and tragic.  Those pent-up feelings or emotions have to go somewhere and unfortunately they don’t just fade away with time.

There is a reason that police officers are known for what I call “the big three” – alcohol abuse, divorce, and suicide.  When there is a running joke in your profession that you aren’t a “real cop” until you’ve gone through your first divorce, I think it is safe to say that the issue is an epidemic within the profession.  Unfortunately, due to the type of person it takes to be a police officer, most shrug it off and say, “It’s part of the job.”

So, what’s the solution?  How do we do better?  These are the important questions that need answering.  I would start by saying we need to end the stigma of talking about the negative effects of being a police officer.  Simply telling a recruit, “This job will change you,” isn’t enough.  It is frustrating that police officers are aware of the mental health hazards that come with the job, yet only acknowledge them and don’t take any action on how to manage them.

Reach out.  Talk.  Discuss.  Find hobbies or hang out with friends that are not police officers.  Do ANYTHING but ignore the fact that as police officers, we deal with very difficult things on a daily basis, physically, mentally, and visually.  It would take a toll on anyone, so don’t think you’re immune or weak for admitting the truth.  The job WILL change you. Be prepared, have a plan, and be safe.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: The Officer Next Door draws from personal experiences as a police officer with the Dallas Police Department. Over a span of 12 years, he worked in patrol, auto theft, narcotics, and vice. The Officer Next Door’s articles are focused on sharing the police officer’s perspective, giving the reader a firsthand point of view of what police officers experience on-duty and off.  You can read more of his work at www.theofficernextdoor.com.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you are struggling with the stresses of the job, you can reach a peer support specialist by sending a message to m.me/callforbackup.org/.  If you are in crisis now and need immediate help, text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor.

 

Helping a Survivor Heal

by Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt

Historian Arnold Toynbee once wrote, “There are always two parties to a death; the person who dies and the survivors who are bereaved.” Unfortunately, many survivors of suicide suffer alone and in silence. The silence that surrounds them often complicates the healing that comes from being encouraged to mourn.

Because of the social stigma surrounding suicide, survivors feel the pain of the loss, yet may not know how, or where, or if, they should express it. Yet, the only way to heal is to mourn. Just like other bereaved persons grieving the loss of someone loved, suicide survivors need to talk, to cry, sometimes to scream, in order to heal.

As a result of fear and misunderstanding, survivors of suicide deaths are often left with a feeling of abandonment at a time when they desperately need unconditional support and understanding.

Without a doubt, suicide survivors suffer in a variety of ways: one, because they need to mourn the loss of someone who has died; two, because they have experienced a sudden, typically unexpected traumatic death; and three, because they are often shunned by a society unwilling to enter into the pain of their grief.

How Can You Help?
A friend or family member has experienced the death of someone loved from suicide. You want to help, but you are not sure how to go about it. This page will guide you in ways to turn your cares and concerns into positive action.

Accept the Intensity of the Grief
Grief following a suicide is always complex. Survivors don’t “get over it.” Instead, with support and understanding they can come to reconcile themselves to its reality. Don’t be surprised by the intensity of their feelings. Sometimes, when they least suspect it, they may be overwhelmed by feelings of grief. Accept that survivors may be struggling with explosive emotions, guilt, fear and shame, well beyond the limits experienced in other types of deaths. Be patient, compassionate and understanding.

Listen with Your Heart
Assisting suicide survivors means you must break down the terribly costly silence. Helping begins with your ability to be an active listener. Your physical presence and desire to listen without judgment are critical helping tools. Willingness to listen is the best way to offer help to someone who needs to talk.

Thoughts and feelings inside the survivor may be frightening and difficult to acknowledge. Don’t worry so much about what you will say. Just concentrate on the words that are being shared with you.

Your friend may relate the same story about the death over and over again. Listen attentively each time. Realize this repetition is part of your friend’s healing process. Simply listen and understand. And, remember, you don’t have to have the answer.

Avoid Simplistic Explanations and Clichés
Words, particularly clichés, can be extremely painful for a suicide survivor. Clichés are trite comments often intended to diminish the loss by providing simple solutions to difficult realities. Comments like, “You are holding up so well,” “Time will heal all wounds,” “Think of what you still have to be thankful for” or “You have to be strong for others” are not constructive. Instead, they hurt and make a friend’s journey through grief more difficult.

Be certain to avoid passing judgment or providing simplistic explanations of the suicide. Don’t make the mistake of saying the person who suicided was “out of his or her mind.” Informing a survivor that someone they loved was “crazy or insane” typically only complicates the situation. Suicide survivors need help in coming to their own search for understanding of what has happened. In the end, their personal search for meaning and understanding of the death is what is really important.

Be Compassionate
Give your friend permission to express his or her feelings without fear of criticism. Learn from your friend. Don’t instruct or set explanations about how he or she should respond. Never say “I know just how you feel.” You don’t. Think about your helping role as someone who “walks with,” not “behind” or “in front of” the one who is bereaved.

Familiarize yourself with the wide spectrum of emotions that many survivors of suicide experience. Allow your friend to experience all the hurt, sorrow and pain that he or she is feeling at the time. And recognize tears are a natural and appropriate expression of the pain associated with the loss.

Respect the Need to Grieve
Often ignored in their grief are the parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, spouses and children of persons who have suicided. Why? Because of the nature of the death, it is sometimes kept a secret. If the death cannot be talked about openly, the wounds of grief will go unhealed.

As a caring friend, you may be the only one willing to be with the survivors. Your physical presence and permissive listening create a foundation for the healing process. Allow the survivors to talk, but don’t push them. Sometimes you may get a cue to back off and wait. If you get a signal that this is what is needed, let them know you are ready to listen if, and when, they want to share their thoughts and feelings.

Understand the Uniqueness of Suicide Grief
Keep in mind that the grief of suicide survivors is unique. No one will respond to the death of someone loved in exactly the same way. While it may be possible to talk about similar phases shared by survivors, everyone is different and shaped by experiences in his or her life.

Because the grief experience is unique, be patient. The process of grief takes a long time, so allow your friend to process the grief at his or her own pace. Don’t criticize what is inappropriate behavior. Remember the death of someone to suicide is a shattering experience. As a result of this death, your friend’s life is under reconstruction.

Be Aware of Holidays and Anniversaries
Survivors of suicide may have a difficult time during special occasions like holidays and anniversaries. These events emphasize the absence of the person who has died. Respect the pain as a natural expression of the grief process. Learn from it. And, most importantly, never try to take the hurt away.

Use the name of the person who has died when talking to survivors. Hearing the name can be comforting and it confirms that you have not forgotten this important person who was so much a part of their lives.

Be Aware of Support Groups
Support groups are one of the best ways to help survivors of suicide. In a group, survivors can connect with other people who share the commonality of the experience. They are allowed and encouraged to tell their stories as much, and as often, as they like. You may be able to help survivors locate such a group. This practical effort on your part will be appreciated.

Respect Faith and Spirituality
If you allow them, a survivor will “teach you” about their feelings regarding faith and spirituality. If faith is part of their lives, let them express it in ways that seem appropriate. If they are mad at God, encourage them to talk about it. Remember, having anger at God speaks of having a relationship with God. Don’t be a judge, be a loving friend.

Survivors may also need to explore how religion may have complicated their grief. They may have been taught that persons who take their own lives are doomed to hell. Your task is not to explain theology, but to listen and learn. Whatever the situation, your presence and desire to listen without judging are critical helping tools. 

Work Together as Helpers
Friends and family who experience the death of someone to suicide must no longer suffer alone and in silence. As helpers, you need to join with other caring persons to provide support and acceptance for survivors who need to grieve in healthy ways.

To experience grief is the result of having loved. Suicide survivors must be guaranteed this necessity. While the above guidelines on this page will be helpful, it is important to recognize that helping a suicide survivor heal will not be an easy task. You may have to give more concern, time and love than you ever knew you had. But this effort will be more than worth it.

Additional Resources:

“We Have Met the Enemy, and He Is Us”

Of all the things that can be most crippling to any individual, any relationship, or any career, are the negative thoughts that we all have that sometimes take over our thinking, which in turn changes our way of approaching certain situations.  We call it “negative self talk.”  One well-known psychiatrist makes it a major part of his practice to help people learn how to deal with what he calls “ANTs” or Automatic Negative Thoughts.  In fact, Dr. Daniel Amen says that 80 percent of our thoughts about ourselves are negative.  For some reason, those are the kinds of thoughts that become our “go to” when we are stressed, and this syndrome certainly affects a great number of first responders.

I typically say that our bodies are designed in a wonderful and amazing way, and that includes the way our brain is designed to communicate with, and control, our physiological responses.  Your thoughts lead to what have become known as self-fulfilling prophecies.  In other words, if you are thinking negatively all the time and don’t expect good things to happen, then you won’t try very hard to make good things happen.  If you practice thinking positively, then your expectations will change, and consequently your behavior is likely to become more self-promoting rather than self-defeating.  Either way, you are thinking your way toward the eventual outcome.

But there is more to it than that.  Your thoughts trigger changes in your limbic system which controls your mood which then results in certain physiological changes.  For example, every time you have an angry thought, an unkind thought, or a sad thought, your brain releases chemicals that may make your muscles tense, your heart rate speed up, your respirations increase, and you may even start to feel a little dizzy.  But, every time you have a good thought, a happy thought, a kind thought, or a hopeful thought, your brain releases chemicals that make your body feel good and have just the opposite affect from those negative thoughts.

What are some examples of the different types of negative self talk?

  1. Thinking characterized by the words “always” or “never.”
  2. Focusing on the negative and only seeing the bad in any situation.
  3. Fortune telling, that is, predicting the worst possible outcome.
  4. Mind reading – believing you already know what another person is thinking without them even telling you.
  5. Thinking with your feelings – believing your negative feelings without ever questioning them.
  6. Guilt beatings: telling yourself things like, “I should have,” “I ought to,” or “I have to.”
  7. Labeling – the act of attaching a negative label to yourself or someone else.
  8. Personalization, or when innocuous situations take on a personal meaning.
  9. Blame, or blaming someone else for your own problems.

Unless you do something to influence those automatic negative thoughts, they will be just that – automatic.  The good news is that you can train your thoughts (your self talk) to be positive and hopeful if you choose, or the bad news is that you can continue to let the negative thoughts happen and upset you.  Persistent negativity is certainly a sign of stress overload, and it leads down a path that goes beyond self-defeating thinking right into self-destructive behavior if it goes unchecked.

I’m not suggesting you have to go all “Stuart Smalley” . . . (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”), but if you are having any of these kinds of persistent negative thoughts, please reach out to us by sending a message to m.me/callforbackup.org/ and one of our peer support specialists will be happy to chat with you.  As always, if you are in crisis now and need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK, or text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor.  These resources are free and confidential.