With everything that has occurred in our profession over the past year, now more than ever, officers and dispatchers need supportive care, assistance, avenues for healing and mechanisms for wellness. However, there are still numerous ingrained barriers to officers seeking the help they need, which inherently prevents them from responding to work traumas in constructive, positive ways that are productive of wellness, professional and ethical service, and overall resiliency.
Personal. Officers are the helpers among us. They respond to every need, crisis, act of violence, disaster and tragedy. Everyone depends upon us for protection, to handle their impossible problems and to save them. Therefore, it can be extremely disturbing when it is the helper who needs the help.
Inherent within us is the stigma that seeking help to recover from work traumas is a sign of weakness or an indication that something is wrong with us. Our supervisors and our evolving culture of wellness need to reinforce and affirm that it is alright to be human. It would be unnatural and inhuman not to experience negative effects from all the terrible and disturbing things we experience daily.
It would be unnatural and inhuman not to experience negative effects from all the terrible and disturbing things we experience daily.
Suffering from work experiences in silence while hoping that, over time, you will get better actually kills more officers (through suicide) than anything else. It is fear that prevents us from reaching out and getting help — fear of the unknown, fear of what others will think of us, fear of how the agency will respond. Regarding how traumas affect us, it is never about what is wrong with you, it is always about what happened to you.
When we are fearless in every other aspect of our work, why can’t we be humble and fearless when it comes to our own health and well-being? When there are scientifically proven methods to recover and heal from traumas, no matter how severe (such as with EMDR therapy), then not seeking that help is self-destructive. Not seeking the necessary help is a form of cowardice and is wholly unwise. With help, life gets better.
As a profession, we must get to the point where it is not only alright to ask for help, but that it is even more acceptable to notice that a colleague may need help and to reach out to them. Ideally, it should become not only alright to ask for help, but expected that you would need help at different times throughout your police career. Along with that expectation, agencies need to be proactive at developing mechanisms for wellness and resiliency so that help is there and is trusted whenever it is sought.
Colleagues and police culture. Our colleagues, at times, tend to reinforce the senseless notion that needing any type of help is a weakness. They do this through ridicule, bravado and not supporting agency initiatives that offer resources and assistance.
We need to counteract such harmful and destructive behaviors every opportunity we get by affirming it is normal to struggle from the terrible things we see — and that there are ways to support each other and to get better.
Pursuing active, positive engagement with our colleagues to check in with them to see if they are alright, offering our assistance and making sure it is known that we are willing to do anything for a colleague if needed will all help to erase the stigma against seeking help.
Organizational. Agencies can at times unwittingly reinforce the stigma that something is wrong with you if you feel you may need some help. They do this by not having proactive and trusted peer support teams, by not having chaplains, by not promoting and having available EMDR trauma professionals and by not creating proactive mechanisms for wellness that develop agency-wide resources, training and resiliency.
Agencies mistakenly reinforce the barriers to seeking help by not developing effective wellness policies and procedures that clearly lay out how the agency will respond if an officer or dispatcher needs help. Such policies need to be solidified through consistent practice by responding to officers in need of help in ways that are perceived as being supportive, useful and helpful. If an officer is not sure how the agency will respond, then they are likely to never seek the help they may so desperately need.
Chief executives and command staff also need to have a consistent message and a unified front that it is alright to be human and that they expect and want every officer and dispatcher to get whatever help they need. Command staff also needs to exemplify wellness themselves through their behavior; their genuine interest, support and goodwill to every employee; and their actions of seeing a trauma professional themselves (preferably one who is certified in EMDR therapy) once a year as a form of maintenance and prevention.
Trauma has the undeniable potential to cause invisible, internal, devastating injuries that can not only create much suffering, but can cause post-traumatic stress, depression, addictions, poor and ineffective service, and suicide. When professional police leaders begin to see such invisible wounds as serious and treatable injuries — and respond just as if the officer had broken their arm during a suspect assault — only then will the barriers to seeking help be demolished, and we can heal as a profession.