Help is Out There
By Dan Bailey, Field Representative-Monday. September 17, 2020
Many of you have had the call that one of our own has taken his or her life. The calls are crushing and leave everyone wondering why. Many of us are left wondering what could have been done differently to possibly achieve a different outcome. The Illinois FOP Labor Council continually strives to not only fight and protect your benefits, but to also assist in areas such as PTSD and Police Resiliency. To that end, the Illinois FOP Labor Council continues to send its employees to training on these issues, so that knowledge can be shared with membership. We understand that training opportunities may be limited, so we attempt to fill that void and bring the training to, not only our membership, but other law enforcement professionals as well.
It is hard to ignore the data and statistics on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Various studies show PTSD rates of between 7% to 19% in law enforcement. Beyond the perception that officers do not need therapy, another issue standing in the way of treatment is a potential misunderstanding as to what PTSD is. Misunderstanding PTSD can continue to haunt an officer for years, leading some to make the decision to end their own lives.
One of the first things that must be understood is that having emotional and cognitive issues immediately following an event is normal. The problem comes in when these issues remain for months or years later. According to Dr. Artwohl and Christensen, PTSD generally comes from exposure to a traumatic event, which then brings about symptoms such as intrusive thoughts, avoidance of reminders to the event, negative changes in thoughts or feelings, and/or heightened physical reactions (such as being more aggressive or engaging in risky behavior). These need to last longer than a month and be coupled with significant distress and/or impairment. A few common misconceptions about PTSD are the following: it is inevitable following a traumatic event, reactions to trauma are the same, it is a sign of weakness, it makes people dangerous, it turns people into alcoholics, and that it is untreatable (Artwohl and Christensen, 2019). These are all inaccurate and can only serve to make an officer feel worse about his or her situation. In some, this situation can become overwhelming, leading to suicide. According to Badge for Life, there were 108 police suicides in 2016, while there were 97 deaths due to gunfire or accidents combined.
One of the first steps in addressing a problem is acknowledging it exists in the first place. For too long, law enforcement professionals have had to suppress their emotions and not get the help they may need, due to the stigma of therapy. Indeed, it is understandable that there would be negative connotations to therapy and psychologists, because for most officers, their only interaction with these people are during the hiring process, after an in-custody death, or during a fit for duty examination. Those situations tend to instill fear and dread in officers, so naturally, the psychologists involved are not viewed positively. However, many psychologists and other mental health providers stand ready to assist officers with problems that the officers cannot solve themselves. You would spend money and time addressing a painful elbow or knee, so why not your mind?
Always remember that the psychologists offered through an Employee Assistance Program are paid by your employer. Thus, there is not the same direct, confidential relationship that you would have if you retained your own psychologist. Some consideration should be given to finding your own psychologist or other mental health provider that has no connection to your employer; however, if money is tight, your EAP psychologist is certainly better than no psychologist at all. Just make sure you ask any EAP doctor to confirm that what you are telling him or her is confidential and will not be revealed to the Employer.
Hopefully knowing these factors can assist officers in understanding what they are feeling and better prepare them for the effects. What others can do to help is providing support. Reach out to these effected officers, let them know you support them and are there to help. Try to avoid talking about the situation, as the involved officer may want to take their mind off the event. Further, there could be legal consequences by them telling you what happened, as you can then be made to testify against them. Reach out to us if you have questions about this. Beyond the possible pitfalls of talking about the incident itself, treat them normally and help take their mind off the incident.
In addition to knowing the symptoms of PTSD, you can also prepare yourself for a situation like this by increasing your resiliency, or ability to adapt and bounce back from a traumatic incident. Different steps such as finding a resilient role model, or actively seeking a supportive social network (with friends outside law enforcement), to maintaining a healthy sleep schedule, and practicing mindfulness (being open and curious about your feelings instead of suppressing them) can help you become more resilient (Conn, 2018). Journaling can also assist in helping you remember and process certain feelings. Naturally, increasing your resiliency will not prevent you from being exposed to traumatic events, but it will make you more prepared to handle the aftereffects.
Certainly, some people will need professional help. The National FOP has researched and recommends the following treatment centers: FHE Health in Florida, Warriors Heart in Texas, Chateau Recovery in Utah, and Transformations Treatment Center in Florida. There are also local providers that stand ready to assist. In addition to these locations, the FOP also offers access to a 24-hour Critical Incident Support Team at 866-535-1078.
Please understand that while this article utilizes the term “officer”; it applies to any law enforcement professional. Anyone can suffer from a traumatic event, from the responding officers to the dispatchers who hear the radio traffic. PTSD does not care about your profession. Who does care are your family, friends and co-workers. If you find yourself suffering from PTSD or having suicidal thoughts, always remember you are not alone, and you deserve to receive the help that is out there.
Many of the statistics and concepts in this article come from the following books. Anyone seeking a deeper understanding on these topics are encouraged to read the following:
Artwohl, Alexis & Christensen, Loren W. (2019). Deadly Force Encounters: Cops and citizens defending themselves and others. Coppell, TX. Second Edition.
Conn, Stephanie M. (2018). Increasing Resilience in Police and Emergency Personnel: Strengthening your mental armor. New York: Routledge.
Junger, Sebastian. (2016). Tribe: On homecoming and belonging. New York: Twelve, Hatchett Book Group.