Breaking the Stigma – Part 5

When we left off last time, we said that we were going to be addressing the three things that first responders need to manage stress, especially in the immediate aftermath of a critical incident.  Those three things are ventilation, validation, and education.

Ventilation is the process through which we encourage and allow individuals to express themselves freely – to “tell their story.”  Quite simply, research tells us that traumatic memories often get trapped in the mind, and the longer we avoid talking about the trauma the more likely we are to develop PTSD.  Talking about the event will often lead us to sources of support, help us make sense of what happened, and to realize that our identity is not limited to that traumatic event, even if it was a defining moment in our lives.  It can help us view ourselves as victors, not victims.

Clinicians, family members, and peers must be able to listen without seeming shocked and without passing judgment.  They need to be able to listen without expectations or judgments. As a helper, you can make it clear that you’re interested and that you care, but don’t worry about giving advice. It’s the act of listening attentively that is helpful, not what you have to say in response.

As you give that person the opportunity for ventilation, some of the things he or she tells you might be very hard to listen to, but it’s important to respect their feelings and reactions. If you come across as disapproving or judgmental, they are unlikely to open up to you again.

The next thing is validation.  Validation is the process through which we acknowledge the event(s) and the individual’s reaction(s), and then “normalize.”  One of the most refreshing things a person who is struggling with symptoms of stress can hear is that they are not “crazy.”  As we say in teaching critical incident stress management, people who have experienced a traumatic event are having a normal reaction to a very abnormal event or unusual set of circumstances.

Individuals will also benefit from hearing that others have experienced similar reactions or have had similar thoughts.  One of the benefits of group-based crisis interventions is that the idea that there is a set of reactions that is common to people who have experienced the same or similar types of situations.  This helps legitimize rather than stigmatize the symptoms that people are experiencing.  Research done for Call for Backup shows that over 90% of first responders agree that the things they see affect them emotionally.  People need to know that they are not alone.

Finally, there is a need for education.  Education is the process through which we help identify existing coping skills and suggest additional coping skills to manage stress reactions.  Individuals suffering from the effects of a critical incident and/or chronic stress need instruction on the right kinds of coping skills that will help improve their chances of feeling better sooner rather than later.

The idea is to promote healing from past events and to build resilience against potential future events.  Research done through Johns Hopkins University on early psychological intervention demonstrates that a person who receives good stress management education and learns effective coping skills will often show a higher level of adaptive function than was shown prior to the traumatic event.  Not only have we promoted recovery, but we have also helped that individual develop resistance against the impact of stress and resilience that will help them “bounce back” more quickly in the future.

In our next article, we will put this all together as we talk about the ABCs of dealing with the problem of the stigma for first responders associated with reaching out for help.  If you have issues that you are struggling with and know you need to seek some help, you can contact us confidentially at m.me/callforbackup.org/.

Breaking the Stigma – Part 4

Some of the best clinicians to deal with the needs of police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and others in similar careers, are those who have a background in emergency services themselves.  It is not unusual at all to see clinicians who advertise that they treat first responders to have such a background.  For example, one of the members of the board of directors for the Call for Backup organization is a retired trooper from the Michigan State Police who obtained is counseling degree and now has a practice serving exclusively first responders.

Clinicians who do not have a background in emergency services can still have members of those populations as clients, assuming they have taken steps to become integrated in some way with the culture, and who conduct themselves in a way that shows acceptance of the culture of emergency services.  I’ve conducted many training classes in critical incident stress management with first responders seated along with clinicians who were being trained to understand and work within those cultures.

Family members also need to embrace the culture and understand that family routines change for those in the military or emergency services.  Guess what – there will be missed anniversaries and birthdays.  Someone else is going to have to take the kids to soccer practice or to the dance recital.  Dinner plans will have to be changed, and family vacations may be interrupted.  Rather than fight it, families must embrace it together.

And let’s face it – “crap” rolls down-hill.  Spouses and life partners have to understand that when their loved one has “had it up to here” they may behave in ways that seem uncaring, unloving, or perhaps even downright mean.  Be present and be supportive.  Walk through those challenges together.

Family members of first responders are also at risk for vicarious traumatization and secondary traumatic stress as a result of the trauma that may be directly experienced by the person serving in one of those uniformed services.  Any family member who begins to experience stress-related symptoms should also seek help in adjusting to those difficult circumstances.

Finally, peers can take advantage of their shared understanding and empathy to help one another.  What would you expect coworkers to ask each other after some kind of stressful incident or event?  They would likely ask each other, “Are you okay?”  They naturally care for each other, and they naturally understand each other because they wear the same uniform and do the same work.  They simply need to be accustomed to asking that question of each other when they simply recognize that a peer may have been going through some “stuff” and just needs to know that he or she is important and supported.

Many peers have been trained in peer support programs that may be unique to their own service, or in critical incident stress management programs offered by organizations such as the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation.  Peer support definitely belongs on the continuum of care that individuals may need in dealing with the cumulative effects of chronic stress, or the sudden impact of a traumatic event.

I have seen department or agency leaders resist the idea of implementing programs to help their personnel deal with issues related to their mental and emotional well-being.  I have also seen members of departments band together and continue to lobby their administration until they were given the funding and access to training so they could begin the process of creating a culture of support within the department.

In our next article, we’ll be talking about the three things every first responder needs to effectively deal with stress, especially the aftermath of critical incident stress.  If you have any questions or concerns about your own well-being and you’d like to chat with one of our peer support specialists, simply go to m.me/callforbackup.org/.

Breaking the Stigma – Part 3

I am always quick to point out that our response to stress and trauma in emergency services has to include a mental health component.  Please don’t assume that I have anything against licensed clinicians; they occupy an important space in the overall approach to addressing the needs our first responders have in the area of mental and emotional wellness.  But that doesn’t mean that there may not be some problems associated with that.

For example, clinicians often don’t understand the first responder culture.  I’ve heard horror stories from police officers who have seen a therapist that wouldn’t allow them to have a firearm in the office, or from medics whose therapists have broken down crying because they couldn’t stand to hear the accounts of the traumatic scenes that we have all responded to, or from firefighters who were told by a therapist that they should probably go into a different line of work.  And if therapists can’t understand the culture, they’ll never be able to earn the trust of those they would like to try to help.

Clinicians often don’t have sufficient training in the field of psychotraumatology.  Many clinicians have limited training in dealing with issues relating to post-traumatic stress and being able to effectively work with individuals suffering from a variety of stress-related disorders.  The worst outcome of that is that everything gets labeled as PTSD when the vast majority of first responders and military personnel, even those who are dealing with stress-related symptoms, do not meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.

I’ve used this statement many times in training mental health professionals to work with first responders: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”  The hammer that clinicians have is the DSM-5, and every person they see needs a diagnosis.  I have seen personnel misdiagnosed as having narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, passive-aggressive personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.  We have to be careful about not confusing exaggerated behaviors caused by stress with symptoms of genuine disorders with similar characteristics.  It would be important to keep in mind that every military member of first responder you might see as a clinician has already had to pass some pretty rigorous screening for mental disorders prior to being hired or allowed to enlist.

In future articles in this series on breaking the stigma, we are going to talk more specifically about what family members can do to understand and help their loved one who may be suffering, what peers can do for one another, and what clinicians can do to be more effectively prepared to help first responders manage their stress and to better adjust to the trauma they experience on the job.  The more we know, the better able we are to work together to break the stigma that is keeping so many of our first responders from getting the help they need.

Feel free to reach out to us any time for information or just to chat about any personal struggles you may be having – m.me/callforbackup.org/.

Breaking the Stigma – Part 2

People working in emergency services often have difficulty balancing their work life and their home life.  First responders often feel as though they are “married to the job” because they end up spending more time with the people they work with than they often have the chance to spend with their own families.

First responders, especially police officers, are also bombarded by a great deal of public scrutiny and criticism.  Police officers operate in a daily “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” environment because of the false narrative that all police officers are racist and have a vendetta against certain groups of people.

Emergency services personnel also believe that they should be able to control the outcomes of the calls they respond to.  As hard as we may try, we can’t win every battle, and sometimes the bad guy is simply going to get away.  That person whose life we’re trying to save with CPR isn’t going to make it.  Yet we often place excessively high expectations of success on ourselves and consider ourselves a failure if we don’t win every time.

There is also the issue of sleep deprivation, especially as it relates to shift work.  I can tell you first-hand that emergency services personnel do not get enough sleep, and that it takes a heavy toll on them physically as well as mentally and emotionally.  How many times have you heard one say, “I’m sorry – I’m just tired.”  They’re tired because they don’t rest enough, but the self-imposed expectations as well as the demands for overtime because of inadequate staffing or because of financial obligations that need to be met make it so they have to work too much and not often sleep enough.

You might also overhear someone in emergency services say something like, “We don’t need this stress stuff!”  For many first responders, taking advantage of any program or service to help them manage the stresses they face, either on a daily basis or as the result of a critical incident, would only be a sign of weakness.  They’ve been told to “suck it up, buttercup,” and that “if they can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen;” hence, they simply claim that they don’t need it, and convince themselves that they’ll be fine without it.

We also know that there are issues associated with licensed mental health professionals that may also contribute to the stigma associated with reaching out for help.  What do we mean by that?  Well, we’ll have the chance to explore that in a little more detail in the next article in this series.  Meanwhile, if you have questions or just need to chat, feel free to reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org/.

Your Can’t Pour from an Empty COP

By Guest Author Jonathan Hickory

As a cop, I live for my days off.  And when I finally get to my first off day—the day that I had planned to take on the world, Walmart, the gym, and that moldy stuff in the back of the fridge—I just want to disappear in between the cushions of my couch and not come out for days.  But it’s so rare I ever really get a day off—between court, mandatory training, and that irresistible last-minute OT assignment, it seems like I’m always working.

Sound familiar?  Man, this job can really suck the life out of you.  I know you know what I’m talking about.  Sure, its part of the job.  But it can wear on you, and that can lead to problems.  Big problems.  Problems like compassion fatigue, exhaustion, depression, withdrawal from people, destruction of personal relationships and home life, drinking, more drinking, even suicidal thoughts or worse.  We have all been affected by it, we have all seen it.  We all know fellow cops who have burned out, let their personal life fall apart as they chase the job, or even worse, died by suicide because they felt they had nowhere else to turn.

As a cop who has been through the darkness and overcome it, I want to share some good news with you.  By reading the rest of this article, you can learn the secrets I found for leading an actively balanced life of resilience; the key to surviving a career in law enforcement.  Below are 7 practical, easily applicable tips to help you pour back into yourself—because you cannot pour from an empty cop.

RESILIENCE STEP ONE – REST ON YOUR SABBATH DAY: Great warriors always return from battle and rest.  Soldiers take time off between deployments.  Cops don’t regularly have that ability, because at the end of your short break, you are back on duty.  It’s imperative to give yourself a day to recover.  Once you get to that first day off, remember it’s okay to accomplish very little and maybe even binge some Netflix.  You’ve been hypervigilant and taking care of everyone else’s problems and conflict for the past several days, now it is time to rest.  For those with small children at home, this isn’t always possible, but don’t be afraid or too “tough” to take a nap when your little one does.

RESILIENCE STEP TWO – DIVERSIFY YOUR FRIENDS: After raising my right hand and swearing to the oath, I quickly began to live and breathe everything law enforcement.  All my non-cop friends didn’t really seem to “get it.”  Not to mention, the same question that they always have ready to ask, “So, what’s the craziest call you’ve ever been on?”  Or, “Have you ever shot anyone?”  Eye roll.  So I started hanging out with only cops, on and off duty.  Every time I was trying to do something fun with my fellow officers, like a barbecue or fishing, our conversation always went back to work—and talking about work all the time can really drag you down.  It’s great to love your job, but it’s not great to become the job.

If you ever have that really crappy call, the one involving an abused child or worse…and you just can’t shake it…cops are about the worst people to have in your rolodex.  They will often laugh it off and tell you to suck it up.  And if you can’t, you just might think there is something wrong with you.  I have lived this and now I am so thankful for the men in my church’s men’s group.  These men listen to me, pray for me, and check up on me.  And I’m okay with that.  I love my police brothers and sisters but they should not be my counselors in life.  So, choose some friends to do life with who don’t wear a badge.  Heck, even a firefighter will work as a friend—I mean, if it gets really bad (grin).

RESILIENCE STEP THREE – FIND YOUR THERAPY:  Remember all those cool things you used to do before you were a cop?  Remember the long weekend rides through the countryside on your Harley?  Remember when you used to bring home trout by the bucketful?  Remember when you used to play the guitar in that garage band?  You need to find a passion to pursue.  There is more to life than being a cop.  Find what soothes your soul.  Art, music, writing, motorcycles, horseback riding, archery, fishing, kayaking, paddle boarding, skydiving, snake wrangling (nope)…find your therapy, and make time to pursue it.

RESILIENCE STEP FOUR – GET INTO NATURE: Getting out into nature has incredible therapeutic value.  Nature therapy can often be combined with the passion you pursue from step three above.  If your therapy doesn’t involve getting outside and enjoying Creation, make sure you take the time to get into nature.  Go for a run, or walk, or a hike in the woods.  Kayak or canoe in the calm waters of a nearby pond or lake.  Hop on the ATV and blaze some trails.  The key here is getting away from the busyness out there and resting in the beauty that quietly and peacefully surrounds us every day.

RESILIENCE STEP FIVE – TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY:  I’m not going to preach about diet; I eat too many donuts as it is.  But, realize that what you put into your body has a lot to do with the way you feel.  Eating good food (and not garbage) helps you to not feel like garbage.  Exercise (running, lifting weights, etc.) produces endorphins that combat depression and anxiety.  Avoid alcohol.  Make it a priority to get a healthy amount of sleep—at least on your days off.  Your mind is part of your body, and if your body is feeling well, you are more resilient.

RESILIENCE STEP SIX – DON’T BE A CONTROL FREAK:  There is a difference between being prepared and being in control.  One of the most mind-freeing things for me has been to realize that I have only so much control over the world around me.

A wise pastor I know recently said, “After 30 years in ministry if there is one thing I have learned, it’s that God will be God and people will be people.”  Well said!  You may make a difference in someone’s life of domestic abuse only to see them fall right back into the same abusive relationship.  You arrest the drunk driver and he may never drink again…or he may get arrested again next week for the same offense.  People are responsible for the choices they make, and while you can be a positive influence in their life, don’t think you can change them.  Find peace in knowing that ultimate control is above your pay grade.

RESILIENCE STEP SEVEN – YOU GOTTA HAVE FAITH: This is where it all comes together for me.  Reconnecting with my faith and having a relationship with God has given me long term resilience and new purpose in serving others.  I have the support of my church family and I have an outlook on life that helps me to have compassion for others which makes me a better cop.  At the end of the day, I realize God can use me if I let Him, and this helps me to push on knowing I have a greater purpose than what I can see.  Faith in God gives me hope in a world filled with hopelessness.

Fellow officer, deputy, trooper, or dispatcher, you were meant for more than mundane.  I swear by all of these steps as they took me years to learn.  Any one of these steps will help if you’re not feeling like tackling the whole list.  I hope you can apply at least some of these steps to your life and live the life you were given.

If you need to chat with someone about how to manages the stresses of the job or life in general, our peer support specialists are available at m.me/callforbackup.org/.  For more information about the author, visit https://JonathanHickory.com