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:

These “ANTs” Are Biting You

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.  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.  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 ANTs, or automatic negative thoughts?

  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 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.

If you are having 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.

The Many Facets of Stress

Psychological stress is a general term that refers to experiences that threaten our ability to cope.  We know, of course, that first responders are exposed to experiences on a daily basis that do just that, and often times are even affected by major critical incidents that tend to overwhelm their normal coping mechanisms.  As this article points out, there are a number of different words we use to describe what the stresses of those experiences have done to us, and how our emotions and behaviors have been affected by them.

There are two important points that must be made here.  First, any of the reactions as described here in the context of being a first responder are absolutely normal.  Second, when we realize that all of these conditions are connected in one way or another to our natural stress response system, the path to finding solutions to help us manage these reactions becomes much clearer.

Here are some of the more common ways in which our psychological stresses show up:

  1. Fear or apprehension: These words described the stress experienced by a person who is facing a situation that is dangerous or potentially dangerous. No real explanation is needed here as far as first responders are concerned, because that describes the expectation of essentially every shift that is worked.  Like a soldier going into battle, the first responders in our communities anticipate the possibility of a dangerous situation occuring every time they are called upon.
  2. Anxiety: Many of the disorders that plague first responders are recognizable as anxiety disorders, including Acute Stress Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Anxiety causes sufferes to have unrealistic fears about the future, or disturbing memories from their past.  Many first responders especially have a difficult time filing away their memories of traumatic experiences so that they aren’t constantly troubled by them.
  3. Depression: This describes the stress experienced by someone who has suffered a significant loss such as the death of a loved or the dissolution of a relationship, someone who is suffering from a debilitating illness or injury, or someone who generally seems to feel helpless and who has lost hope in the future. First responders who have been injured on the job, for example, may be more at risk for depression to set in.
  4. Frustration: Sometimes stress is experienced when there is an obstacle or obstacles that prevent the achievement of a goal. In emergency services professions, the frustration that is described here is the result of having to deal with the bureaucracy surrounding those professions, including the various levels of government, the citizenry, or the administration of the agency itself.
  5. Conflict: This is the type of stress that comes from having to choose between alternatives. Sometimes those alternatives might be somewhat equally attractive, such as deciding whether to accept a position with a local agency or to take an offer with a department out of state.  Often the alternate choices we are faced with create more serious dilemmas, such as having a spouse demand that we choose life with her/him over the career as a first responder.
  6. Guilt: As one matures in his or her career as a first responder, the likelihood of developing feelings of guilt increases, resulting in thoughts or behaviors that are inconsistent with one’s self-image. Whether it is guilt over the perceived failure on a particularly difficult call, or the guilt felt by those surviving after burying a colleague lost in the line of duty, every first responder will deal with this stressful emotion at some point.

Whether or not you need professional help to overcome any of the manifestations of psychological stress discussed here, there is little doubt that following some relatively simple stress management strategies will help you feel at least somewhat better.  If you’d like to have a confidential conversation with someone about any of the effects of job-related stress that are bothering you, please reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org/ and one of our peer support specialists will be happy to chat with you.

The “other” line of duty death . . .

It is commonly reported that in the United States a police officer dies in the line of duty every 58 hours.  So far in 2018 the total has reached 93 – a 7% increase over this same time last year.  Firearms-related deaths are up by 28%, while traffic-related deaths and deaths from other causes (like training accidents, etc.) remain relatively unchanged.  All of these statistics are readily available on websites for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (www.nleomf.org) or the Officer Down Memorial Page (www.odmp.org).  But you’ll almost never see any statistics reported on the “other” line of duty death – police suicide.

Uh-oh . . . we’re not supposed to talk about this!  For better or worse, police officers need to maintain the appearance of “having it all together.”  The sad reality, of course, is that many police officers are not only struggling with the same life stressess that non-officers struggle with, but they are also trying to process the ugly side of human life that they are beset with during every shift.  Depending on the source, you will find that the suicide rate among active duty police officers is as much as 50% greater than the rate in the general population, and that anywhere from 200 to 450 active duty police officers complete suicide every year!  And 85% of them use their service weapon to complete the act.

A common myth about suicide is that it usually occurs without warning.  The truth is that most suicidal people plan their self-destruction in advance and then present clues indicating that they have become suicidal.  Among the many warning signs to watch for:  the individual shows lack of interest and motivation and stops confiding in anyone; is turning more and more toward alcohol or other substances; suffers from frequent injuries or is “accident prone”; has written letters to close friends outlining their wishes “if something were to ever happen”; is no longer concerned about physical appearance.

Another common myth about suicide is that asking people if they are suicidal might plant the idea in their heads.  If you see warning signs like the ones mentioned above, there’s no reason (and perhaps no time) to be subtle.  You should ask the person you are concerned about:  “Have you thought about hurting or killing yourself?”  If the answer is “yes” or if you believe the individual is being intentionally vague in answering, you should address whether the individual has the “means, motive, and opportunity” to complete the act of suicide.  And offer to stay while encouraging the individual to seek professional help.

What if you have heard an officer jokingly talking about suicide?  Another myth is that if people talk about killing themselves, they won’t really do it.  Talking about suicide (even jokingly) is often a clue or warning about a person’s intention.  Every mention of suicide ought to be taken seriously!

Why are police officers at such a high risk for suicide?  Because of the effects of different kinds of stress association with the profession:

  • Internal (departmental) stress (poor supervision, lack of communication, etc.)
  • External (community) stress (adversarial relationship between police and community)
  • Critical incident stress (events that overwhelm normal coping mechanisms such as a line of duty death, serious injury of an officer, horrific crime scene, etc.)
  • Cumulative stress (suffered by veteran officers due to an accumulation of unresolved issues)
  • Family stress (officers develop dysfunctional skills to survive the law enforcement profession, and the family suffers stress because of it)

When the effects of these kinds of stress become too much for an officer to bear, he or she may view suicide as the only means of getting relief.  That is why I refer to police suicide as the “other” line of duty death.

Help for officers is available from many sources, including one’s own spiritual support system or faith community, the department chaplain, a peer support group trained in critical incident stress management, or an employee assistance plan (EAP) if the department has one.  Officers or even their family members may reach out to Call for Backup by sending a message to m.me/callforbackup.org/.  In the case of an impending suicide attempt, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: (800)-273-TALK (8255), or text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor.  These services are available 24/7, are free, and always confidential.