Policing is stressful business. Most cops will see more death, despair and human cruelty in the first few years of their careers than the rest of us will see in a lifetime. This takes a toll. As a police psychologist, I’ve been up close and personal with the suffering that such exposure can create.
I volunteer to co-facilitate a six-day retreat for six first responders struggling with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. I do this four times a year as part of a team of clinicians, peer supporters (cops, fire fighters, dispatchers) and a chaplain. None of us get paid. We do this out of respect for first responders and appreciation for the many sacrifices they make to keep the rest of us safe.
The work is intense. It has to be. Our clients are in deep trouble. Some have spent years trying to cope on their own and are only here because they are perilously close to some major catastrophe like suicide, divorce, or alcoholism. Of all six days, Day One is the hardest. Walking in our front door may be the bravest thing any of them have done.
Why do cops and other first responders wait so long to get help when early intervention could save them and their families years of trouble and misery? At least one of the following five mistaken beliefs affects everyone we see.
Can these mistaken beliefs be changed? This is a tough question. Normalizing therapy and encouraging psychological as well as physical self-care is the goal. When senior officers speak openly about their own experiences in therapy, it reduces stigma. Embedding culturally competent clinicians in the day to day life of a police agency breeds familiarity and encourages trust because cops are often more comfortable talking to someone they know. Finally, increasing the quantity and quality of time devoted to resilience training when officers are still in the academy may be the beginning of healthy career-long habits including getting help in a timely way.
I wish my readers, many of whom are first responders, Happy Holidays and a safe, peaceful, and healthy 2018.
Kirschman, E., Kamena, M., Fay, J.,(2014) Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know. New York. Guilford.