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

Police Suicide – Are We Doing Enough?

It is commonly reported that in the United States a police officer dies in the line of duty every 58 hours.  The 2019 total reached 135 – a 19% decrease from the previous year.  But you’ll almost never see any statistics reported on the “other” line of duty death – police suicide – because there is no national database to keep such a record.  Even though gathering valid and reliable statistics is a significant challenge, most sources will not dispute the fact that the number of suicides of active law enforcement officers has been consistently exceeding the number of those who die in the line of duty every year.

The Topic

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 stresses 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 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 we can legitimately refer to police suicide as the “other” line of duty death.

The Problem

Humanizing the Badge conducted some research back in 2017 to explore the phenomenon of suicide among police officers.  One question on that survey, which had a total of 3,892 responses from police officers across the country, asked essentially why they don’t reach out for help even though they know they need it.  When analyzing those open-ended responses, the most frequently-used word by far was the word stigma in some form.  This is certainly consistent with other research in both the military and emergency services, so it’s not really a surprise at all.  More recent research tells us that 80% of first responders surveyed believe there is a stigma associated with reaching out for help that is perpetuated by their peers, meaning the culture of not seeking help has been ingrained in our officers from generation to generation.

The #2 reason officers don’t ask for help is they believe their department or agency won’t stand by them.  I have far too many stories that I can tell you about officers who have been let down by their department when they admitted they were in need of some help as they struggled with the stresses of the job, or post-traumatic stress after a critical incident.  From administrative leave, to suspension, to suspension pending termination, to outright termination, there are officers whose careers have been ended just because they made an appointment to talk to a therapist about their struggles.  Recent research tells us that 89% of first responders believe there is a stigma associated with reaching out for help that is perpetuated by their department or agency through punitive rather than redemptive policies.

The Solution

A: Address the Issues.  The causes of the stigma associated with seeking help must be addressed.  We definitely know what at least some of those causes are: personnel don’t trust their department or agency to support them, they don’t believe clinicians understand them, and they don’t want to appear weak by asking for help.

Stress-related injuries are just as real as the physical injuries that law enforcement personnel may suffer.  It’s time that they were treated with the same sense of urgency and understanding.  We consistently lose more police officers to suicide than are killed in the line of duty, and we need to acknowledge that this is the inevitable result of having a culture of stigma regarding mental wellness among the ranks.

B: Build Trust.  Trust is critical to the success of relationships.  The point of building trust is for others to believe what you say. Keep in mind, however, that building trust requires not only keeping the promises you make but also not making promises you’re unable to keep.  Keeping your word shows others what you expect from them, and in turn, they’ll be more likely to treat you with respect, developing further trust in the process.

Building trust is a daily commitment. Don’t make the mistake of expecting too much too soon. In order to build trust, first take small steps and take on small commitments and then, as trust grows, you will be more at ease with making and accepting bigger commitments. Put trust in, and you will generally get trust in return.

Peers, of course, have a natural advantage for accelerating the time it takes to establish trust.  In fact, first responders 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.  We need to stop shaming and/or punishing individuals who are seeking help.  Some elements of the culture in law enforcement are deeply ingrained and are likely to never change.  That’s okay.  But there are some aspects of that culture that we’ve described earlier that simply must change if we are to break down the walls of stigma that prevent people from getting help when they need it.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has been consistently publishing information and guidelines for the past 5 years, at least, on how departments need to proceed to take better care of the mental wellness needs of their personnel.  Agency leaders need to do a better job of identifying and implementing solutions that will work for their people.

Finally, silence isn’t strength, and asking for help is not a sign of weakness!  Officers need to be brave enough to ask for help when they need it.  And command staff need to understand that it is part of their responsibility to encourage, not punish, that kind of vulnerability.

Breaking the Stigma – Part 1

There are a variety of incidents that first responders experience in the course of their work that can have an impact on their mental and emotional well-being.  Whether it’s just the constant activity during a shift that keeps them from being able to pause and rest once in a while, or exposure to the gruesome nature of the some of the scenes they respond to, or things as serious as being involved in a shooting or experiencing the death of a colleague in the line of duty, our emergency services personnel are expected to absorb all that stress and trauma and go on about their lives as if everything is normal.

The truth is, our first responders become the receptacle for a lot of garbage that is dumped on them throughout the course of their career, and those working in emergency services need to become better at managing the mental and emotional clutter created by all that trash.  The truth is, they are usually not very good at doing that.

What would cause a person who is struggling so greatly just to keep packing things down further instead of taking out the proverbial trash when it needs to go?  To answer that question, we usually use the word stigma.

The #1 reason first responders don’t ask for help is their fear of that stigma.  Humanizing the Badge conducted some research back in 2017 to explore the phenomenon of suicide among police officers.  One question on our survey, which had a total of 3,892 responses from police officers across the country, asked essentially why they don’t reach out for help even though they need it.  When analyzing those open-ended responses, the most frequent answer by far used the word stigma in some form.  This is certainly consistent with other research in both the military and emergency services, so it’s not really a surprise at all.

More recent research tells us that 80% of first responders surveyed believe there is a stigma associated with reaching out for help that is perpetuated by their peers.

The #2 reason first responders don’t seek help: they believe their department or agency won’t stand by them.  I have far too many stories that I can tell you about officers who have been let down by their department when they admitted they were in need of some help as they struggled with the stresses of the job, or post-traumatic stress after a critical incident.  From administrative leave, to suspension, to suspension pending termination, to outright termination, I know of officers whose careers have been ended just because they made an appointment to talk to a therapist about their struggles.

Our recent research tells us that 89% of first responders believe there is a stigma associated with reaching out for help that is perpetuated by their department or agency.

Issues associated with the culture of emergency services also contribute to the ongoing stigma associated with seeking help, and that will be the topic we address in the next article in this series on breaking the stigma of mental health for first responders.  Meanwhile, if you have questions, or if you would like to chat with one of our peer support specialists, please feel free to reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org/.

How well do you understand PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) first appeared in the 3rd edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, back in 1980 (DSM-III).  The symptoms of PTSD are caused by exposure to specific types of traumatic incidents; however, the vast majority of people who experience trauma do not experience symptoms in a way that would result in a legitimate diagnosis.  “What is a legitimate diagnosis?” you ask.  A legitimate diagnosis is:

  • One that is reached following objective evaluation by a licensed clinician
  • When the precipitating factor is one of the limited kind of traumatic experiences specified in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-5
  • When the required number of symptoms from each of 5 categories of symptoms listed in the DSM-5 are present for a period longer than 30 days
  • And when there is significant impairment of function in some area of the individual’s life who is suffering from those symptoms

According to the National Center for PTSD, about 7-8% of adults experiencing a traumatic event will end up with a diagnosis of PTSD, roughly the same percentage of the adult population in the United States that have a diagnosis of depression.  That, in a nutshell, is why we continue to refer to PTSD as a disorder – because even though the majority of people who experience a traumatic event will have some stress-related symptoms for a relatively short period of time afterward, only a relatively small percentage will go on to qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD.

Despite this truth, efforts have intensified over the last decade to remove the “D” from PTSD and simply call it PTS or PTSI (for Post-Traumatic Stress Injury).  There are professionals, like Frank Ochberg, a professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University, who think the only way to reduce the stigma associated with seeking help for PTSD is to change the name and stop calling it a disorder.  There are others, like Bessel van der Kolk, professor of psychiatry at Boston University, who firmly believe that the way to end the stigma is to call it what it is, and confront it head on.

PTSD is more prevalent in the military and among first responders than in the general population.  Studies have shown that the percentage of military veterans and emergency services personnel that meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD at any given time to be approximately 15%.  There is also a significant stigma associated with that diagnosis, especially for first responders, because many times the department or agency they work for assume that such a diagnosis disqualifies them from doing their job.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  Indeed, personnel are typically able to continue to perform their normal duties while receiving one of the many treatment options available, including:

  • One of several forms of psychotherapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Processing Therapy, or Prolonged Exposure Therapy
  • One of several different types of medication, including anti-anxiety medications, anti-depressants, and in some cases even anti-seizure medications
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy

The comments in this article are not intended to be a substitute for medical advice or treatment.  If you are suffering from stress-related symptoms, seek help.  The best way to overcome the stigma is to put your own mental and emotional wellness at the top of the priority list and focus on getting better.  If you’re not sure where to turn, feel free to reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org and we can help point you in the right direction.  If you are struggling with stress-related symptoms or just have questions that you’d like to have answered, it’s time to call for backup.