This Cop Was Shot, Died Twice And Left Paralyzed, He Says It’s Time… To Start The Conversation.
Article was written by Dan Brite, Wellness Coordinator, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.
Providing mental health services to the first responder community has been gaining traction but it still has a long way to go. We cannot change the culture if we are not willing to talk about the tough stuff. Public safety psychologist Dr. Sara Metz with Code-4 Counseling and Detective Dan Brite with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office teamed up to do exactly that, talk about the tough stuff.
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Dan and Sara created a training video series called “Start The Conversation,” which consists of men and women first responders, as well as spouses and children of first responders. Each person had their own experiences that led to the development of trauma injury. The first responders and their families talk openly and honestly about how the profession has affected them, including the development of issues such as substance abuse, anger, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Their emotions are real and raw, and their stories are very personal. Yet, they all have something in common – they all still wear the uniform, and each has developed healthy coping strategies to help them in their trauma recovery. These first responders were able to start the conversation by talking about their own pain. Their honesty and emotional intelligence opened the door to healing and allowed them to continue in a profession they love.
First responders are masters of suppressing emotions and on duty this is a critically important skill to have. Responders cannot respond to calls and display anger, fear, or break down in tears. There is a level of professionalism and scene control that must be maintained. However, consistently suppressing emotions while at work often bleeds into a responder’s personal life, which is not only unproductive but can become toxic to self and relationships. First responders must develop a level of emotional intelligence that allows them to know when and how to express their emotions.
There are two main factors that first responders always evaluate before sharing their emotions. First, is it safe to do so? A survey of almost 8,000 officers on PTSD by the Fraternal Order of Police and NBC owned stations found that over 68% of officers reported lingering emotional issues after stressful experiences. 90% of those surveyed said they believe there is a stigma in law enforcement about seeking help for mental health issues. Also of note, and a hopeful statistic, 73% of officers surveyed by the FOP said peer counseling was the most helpful treatment (Besthoff, 2019.) The Start the Conversation video series focuses on real and highly respected responders talking openly about their own experiences to normalize the experience on trauma injury and to de-stigmatize the belief that seeking help will put their job at risk, be seen as weak, negatively impact their family, or cause distrust among the ranks. The responders included in these videos have the full support of their command staff and were celebrated by their peers for participating in such an open, honest, and vulnerable way.
Responders work hard to develop their reputations and they don’t want that respect stripped away. Fair enough. It is time for first responder leadership to recognize that the archaic “suck it up buttercup” model for dealing with mental health is ineffective and dangerous. It is so dangerous that it is resulting in the loss of life by suicide. More law enforcement officers died by suicide in 2018 than in the line of duty as reported by Blue H.E.L.P. Supporting mental health for first responders must come from the top down. If leadership doesn’t proactively support mental health programming, then officers will not feel safe accessing these services
and will instead revert to suppressing emotions. The Start the Conversation series has been successful in large part due to the support local Colorado agency leadership has shown for developing mental health programming.
Secondly, officers will evaluate whether they trust the mental health services process in place within their agency. Responders must be able to trust that the mental health process is easy to access, confidential, and culturally competent. If a responder must make a request through their chain of command, HR, etc. just to get a counseling appointment, they will never go. If the counselor referred by the agency does not understand, appreciate, and respect emergency responder culture, they will struggle to develop a foundation of trust, which is a critically important part of the therapeutic relationship. If an officer speaks to a peer support team member and that gets out in the rumor mill, it will destroy the peer support program that may have taken years to build. Maintaining a focus on developing programming that is trusted by members of the agency is essential. Don’t just assume they trust what is being provided. Ask as leaders, if you wouldn’t access the program yourself, that tells you something.
Every member of an agency has a responsibility to Start the Conversation. We hope this video series will be reproduced in agencies across the country so that officers can identify with those that are not only part of the extended blue family but that look like them, sound like them, share their uniform, etc. We believe this approach is unique and will assist in addressing the concerns expressed by officers and provide hope that they are not alone and that it is absolutely acceptable to make use of every available healthy coping strategy out there, including counseling and peer support.
Besthoff, L. (2019). Police officer PTSD: Former officer opens up about his struggles.
Takahara, D. (2019). Law enforcement suicides on the rise for third straight year.
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