After 9/11, the slogan “See something, say something” was plastered all over the airport. The idea behind this messaging was that we were all responsible for making sure everyone was safe and that we were all in a position to do so. We all could see something that didn’t seem right from our perspective and take action. I’ve borrowed this idea to apply to law enforcement, adding a third part: support. We’ve all seen the co-worker who doesn’t seem to be themselves anymore. We might start avoiding them or talking with others about how we have noticed that they’ve become distant, sloppy, lazy, etc.
Not just for peer support and supervisors
“See, say, support” is the responsibility of every officer, not simply the role of peer supporters and supervisors. Well-meaning complicit observation of a struggling peer without action can lead to avoidable regrets when the peer’s circumstances worsen. Caring enough to hurt their feelings is a must at a time where police suicides are on the rise.
So how do you approach a fellow officer who appears to be struggling? I suggest a recipe that starts with a statement of positive intention and/or recognizes some hardship, then a statement that recognizes their change in behavior, followed by a specific example of the change and finally an open-ended question to get them talking. It can go something like this:
“We gotta look out for each other these days. (Alternatives: “I’ve always respected you” or “Things have been rough lately.”) I’ve noticed a change in you. Like, the other day, you … (insert whatever you noticed they did differently). What is going on?”
Like any good recipe, it depends on who’s cooking and who’s eating in terms of how sweet, spicy or salty the conversation can be. It needs to ring true for you and the peer. You don’t want them to feel like you are being fake or handling them with kid gloves. I suggest asking the presumptive question, “What is going on?” because “How’s it going? and “How are you doing?” have become watered-down greetings that rarely get real answers. Most people simply reply with “good,” “fine,” “living the dream” and so forth. They can still deny or downplay that anything is going on. If they do, don’t give up. You can let them know that you’re surprised to hear that and just can’t make sense of the shift in their behavior. If they insist things are fine, let it go, for now. You bringing up that their change is noticeable might have caught them off guard. They may not have been prepared to have this conversation. You might not be the perfect person to bring it up. If you have a co-worker who is closer to them than you, urge them to initiate the conversation. It could also be that they weren’t going to have the conversation at the time and place you’ve brought it up. Keep that in mind when you decide to talk with someone.
Even if you’re the perfect person and you’ve carefully chosen the time, place and words to bring it up, they can still shut down the conversation. Don’t lose heart. Let them know that the door is open for them to talk to you if they decide to do so. Check back in with them a week later to see if they’re up for talking about it. Carefully, ask them if they’ve thought any more about what you brought up last week.
If they tell you that they’re not doing well, you need to have a plan for that. You can’t just say, “Well, good luck with that.”
First, let them know that you’re glad they’re talking about it. Try to avoid feeding the problem by complaining with them, fighting it by saying they shouldn’t feel that way or fixing it by telling them what they should be doing. Instead, empathize with them and explore how they are coping. Coping includes how they are approaching solving the problem, if possible, or how they are coping mentally with what they can’t change. If their method of coping is alcohol, or they say that they aren’t coping, be prepared to offer tentative recommendations on what has helped you or others. For instance, you might say that watching a comedy show, taking a hike or walking the dog might take their mind off things for a while. Explore with them how they have coped with things in the past, even asking, “Is there anything you do besides drinking that gives you even a brief break from the misery?” Follow up by asking what is keeping them from doing that now and brainstorm how to address the barrier. Lastly, refer them to a trusted peer supporter, chaplain or first responder clinician, letting them know that they deserve (not need) a place to unload their worries and get support.
I hope that you will become comfortable with the idea of “see, say, support” with your peers and that, if you need it, your peers will do the same for you. You deserve it.