Do What Works – 5 Coping Mechanisms to Better Mental Health

If you’ve worked in law enforcement longer than your first Code 3 run (lights and siren), you have been required to cope with mental health issues. It doesn’t matter how bravado you are, they are a reality of the profession.

Many military and law enforcement officers combat PTSD. After 31 years in uniform I had plenty of occasions to believe this causal factor was to blame for certain behaviors; and I’ve discussed them with clinicians. But I want to introduce something many cops haven’t considered; not to place blame, but to analyze during diagnosis, together with trained mental health professionals and your physician.

Mental Health and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

The condition known Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) has been largely associated with football players in recent years. A 2015 movie, Concussion, was made starring Will Smith. It unmasked the problem in a way that has revolutionized sports. Concussion protocols have been radically changed to protect players.

CTE is Progressive

CTE is a progressive degenerative disease which afflicts the brain of people who have suffered repeated concussions and traumatic brain injuries, such as athletes who take part in contact sports, members of the military and yes, police officers that have suffered this kind of debilitation.

The brain of an individual who suffers from chronic CTE gradually deteriorates and will over time end up losing mass. Certain areas of the brain are particularly liable to atrophy, though other areas are prone to becoming enlarged. Another aspect of CTE is that some areas of the brain experience an accumulation of tau protein, a substance which serves to stabilize cellular structure in the neurons, but can become defective and subsequently may cause major interference with the function of the neurons.

CTE Symptoms Affecting Mental Health

The symptoms of CTE may cause life-changing effects. The most common include loss of memory, difficulty controlling impulsive or erratic behavior, impaired judgment, behavioral disturbances including aggression and depression, difficult with balance, and a gradual onset of dementia. An individual with CTE may mistakenly ascribe the symptoms to the normal process of aging, or might receive a wrong diagnosis due to the fact that many of the symptoms are similar to other conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. CTE has been diagnosed in several notable cases, which received widespread media attention, including the suicide deaths of NFL player Junior Seau, and professional wrestler Chris Benoit who committed suicide after murdering his wife and son.

Sadly, at the present time, the disease can only be discovered during a post-mortem examination. That is how it was found in former NFL Hall of Famer, Mike Webster, which ultimately became the backdrop for the movie, Concussion.

CTE Study

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs and Boston University, 87 of 91 former NFL players who donated their brains to science after death tested positive for CTE researchers declared in a 2015 study.

While the ailment is associated with athletes due to the high rate of concussions incurred playing a sport, it should be considered by anyone that has had their “bell wrung” excessively. I’ve considered whether it accounts for issues I’ve experienced since I’ve been knocked out five times . . . that I remember. On one occasion I was unconscious for 1 ½ hours.

Could it be that I have CTE? Does that account for the mood swings that frequently occur? I don’t know since the ailment cannot be detected while living. Nor do I want to place the blame for poor behavior on something that can be controlled. But regardless of the root cause, I need to assertively take proactive steps during these moments of darkness.

Coping Mechanisms to Better Mental Health

When I go through these bouts, I refer to them as my “period.” As a result, I need to identify remedies. Remember, these are my helpful solutions. You may need to do the exact opposite.

For me, the way through the low points include:

  1. Social interaction is the last thing I want to do. I will avoid crowds and a party atmosphere if possible. One on one dialogue with a friend or family member is all I care to participate in during these occurrences.
  2. Disconnect from the business of busyness and plug into soothing music. This helps steady negative thoughts. I’ve discovered that life will go on in my absence.
  3. Meditation on Scripture and prayer. Yes, I firmly believe in both. While God tells me to cast my cares upon him, he also cautions me to expect a level of suffering while he works in my heart and mind. It is a molding process that fortifies my life.
  4. The gym is a place I can isolate myself while I do each of the previously mentioned remedies. I also like to escape to nature for exercise. There is something divine and therapeutic about pushing the cardio in a natural setting.
  5. Whether I journal for private benefit or public consumption, I’ve found it helpful. This allows me to process thoughts when I’m at a loss for words. As a matter of fact, I’m typing the outline to this article on my iPhone while riding the elliptical bike in the gym during one of my dark periods of time. People think I’m texting like a maniac as my thumbs are exercising along with my legs. … And yes, I have my heart rate in the target zone . . . No, I’m not talking to anyone!

To the well intentioned therapists reading this article, please do not overload my in-bin with advice. I’m simply offering solutions that work for me. Everyone needs to assess their symptoms in consultation with trained professionals. But ultimately we all need to Do What Works as we strive toward better Mental Health.

– Jim McNeff, editor-in-chief, Law Enforcement Today