Being a law enforcement officer is admirable. Police officers put their own lives in risk to defend the lives of their community members. Unfortunately, part of the job involves seeing distressing incidents. Whether they are involved personally or a witness, these events can take a toll – it’s only human and doesn’t imply weakness.
Because it’s known that a law enforcement career is stressful and every day presents a possibility of a critical incident, discussing how to work through or even prevent line of duty trauma is necessary. Seeking help must be a part of every agency’s culture, reducing the number of officers who feel “weak” for requiring assistance.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is a response to a negative event such as an accident, death, rape, or natural disaster. Even if a person is not directly involved in the incident, they could experience trauma simply from viewing it. It is possible to be traumatized after even hearing a story of what happened to someone. Anyone can be traumatized – even those who are not first responders.
After a traumatic event, officers may experience little to no symptoms at all. Everyone reacts to a traumatic situation differently, and there is no right or wrong response. If you see or are involved in a terrible situation, you may experience no signs of trauma – and that does not mean something is wrong with you.
Officers who have a negative impact may experience flashbacks and emotional changes. The APA also mentions the possibility of physical symptoms as well. How long the effects last can vary based on the individual, but symptoms of trauma can affect a person’s ability to manage relationships. They may have difficulty returning to work, especially if the traumatic experience was witnessed on the job.
It’s not always as easy as jumping back into your usual routine after experiencing a traumatic event. Needing help or even someone to vent to does not make a person weak, but it helps them move forward and cope in a healthy way.
With law enforcement, it can be harder to come forward about needing help. The officer may want to continue fulfilling his or her duty to their community rather than taking time away. In some unfortunate cases, their agency may not foster a great environment for mental health.
Supervisors should make an effort to recognize signs that someone is having difficulty coping with trauma. Listen to their concerns without making them feel weak or that their concerns are invalid or senseless.
Like taking your car to the shop for service or going for a health checkup at the doctor’s office, your brain benefits from preventative care. Dr. Robbie Adler-Tapia, psychologist and author of “One Badge One Brain One Life” details the type of “maintenance” that can be done to keep your mind healthy.
Physical things such as getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and taking care of your health are vital. They are simple things that everyone talks about, but they play a big role in your overall wellness – even mental wellness. Other tips include breathing exercises to help you unwind and stay in the moment.
When work is stressful, take time to not only breathe, but wiggle your toes, massage your hands, and stand up to stretch. Be sure to take advantage of breaks! It may seem impressive to be able to work through all of them, but sometimes unwinding even for a few minutes can sharpen your mind and improve performance.
Before you go home, make it a practice to “empty your container.” Anything you do not need to hold onto after your shift should be let go so you don’t go to bed with additional stress. Your family will appreciate it too, as stress at work can sometimes be brought home and affect personal relationships.
VirTra is here to help too! Utilizing V-VICTA® certified curriculum, we hope to make training easier and incorporate wellness techniques in some of our courses. If you’d like more information on our coursework, contact a specialist.
American Psychological Association – https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma
One Badge One Brain One Life – https://www.drrobbie.org/product-page/one-badge-one-brain-one-life
Written by: Nicole Florisi, Law Enforcement Subject Matter Expert – Investigative Focus
There is a great deal of stigma attached to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the first responder community. With all the “talk” of officer wellness, officer mental health, and resiliency there is not the decrease in negative outcomes that one would like to see overall. Why is that? In some cases, it is the label of having a disorder. Words are powerful and there is a distinct difference in the word disorder versus injury. In other cases, it is nothing more than checking the boxes and “talk” about what should be done to increase positive outcomes. We know where talking gets us. Nowhere, just like it does in the training environment. If we do not teach, implement, and model the skills we want first responders to have, we are not doing what is best.
There is a large focus on the “management” of PTSD and a lot less focus on the areas of prevention and mitigation. There is weakness in the training and application of resiliency skills for first responders to succeed. We have come to a point where individuals stigmatize the word resiliency. If you do not want your officers to have the grit and resiliency to move through the trauma they experience, you are part of the problem.
I was contacted a few months ago by an officer who had the experience of handing a case involving the burned bodies of children. He was struggling (his words) and looking for someone to talk with that would be able to support him while he worked through these events. Unfortunately, the clinician he originally saw started crying when he was sharing the events that brought him to treatment. The clinician told this officer that they could not treat him, as the events that he saw were too “overwhelming for them.”
I am proud beyond belief that this officer still sought treatment. The individuals in his department were not supportive either. He was told by someone in upper management that seeing burned bodies was part of the job and he was weak. That person told this officer that PTSD was “a bunch of crap for people who couldn’t handle life.” And we wonder why officers experience challenges in the recovery process.
On an anecdotal level, I have spoken with several first responder psychologists and therapists. The main barrier to treatment that officers face is not usually moving through the critical incident. The barrier is agency betrayal. Sit with that for a minute. We should provide an environment where it is emotionally safe for first responders to work through their experiences.
The book One Badge, One Brain, One Life: Preventative Maintenance for Your Brain While in the Line of Duty is a fantastic resource for all law enforcement. This book provides information, education, and practical skills to reduce and mitigate symptoms of trauma. You can purchase the book here: One Badge One Brain One Life | Tapia Counseling & P (drrobbie.org)
At VirTra, our V-VICTA® curriculum supports officer wellness. It provides a foundation for coping and resiliency skills that can mitigate traumatic symptoms. VirTra simulators can be a part the process of reintegration for officers after a critical incident. This entails having a framework rooted in best practices that minimizes the risk of enhancing dissociation, derealization, and depersonalization that can accompany traumatic experiences. Both education and conversation are part of reducing stigma. No matter your rank or your role, you can be part of the solution.