Throughout your career, you have received a lot of critical training. In the academy, you learned about laws, criminal investigations, patrol procedures, firearms training, traffic control, EVOC, defensive tactics, first aid and computer skills. All of these are of the utmost importance for success in your career. However, there is one missing link — personal mental health and wellness training. Without focusing on your own mental health and wellness, you are not able to give 100% to those you have sworn to protect. Like a cell phone battery, if you do not recharge your own batteries, your power diminishes. This does not just mean energy, it encompasses the ability to make sound, logical decisions, control emotions in high-stress situations, remain alert and attentive through shifts, respond with correctness and empathy during citizen encounters and be engaged in your personal life when your shift ends.
As you know, no one calls 9-1-1 or a criminal justice professional to tell them about their amazing, happy day. Criminal justice professionals are called upon to help mitigate and manage others’ stress and trauma that comes on their worst days. For the most part, law enforcement professionals constantly deal with the worst moments and days in a person’s life. They are asked to respond and fix a current problem, while those being helped often expect immediate results. Unfortunately, the criminal justice system is constantly under scrutiny from a host of individuals with opinions who often only have partial facts and a limited view of the situation. While the criminal justice professionals know their job duties consist of helping others, they often do not realize the toll it takes on their own wellness and mental health. Incidents that are just part of a “typical” day are, in fact, not normal or typical situations for your brain to analyze and react to.
Your brain is designed to evaluate and react to events without conscious thought. By the time you realize what is happening, your brain has seen, sorted and reacted! As mentioned, this is done without your permission and happens in milliseconds. Under normal, non-stress situations, your brain receives information from your five senses — sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. That information is passed through a “relay station” (thalamus) to your “thinking brain” (prefrontal cortex). Your thinking brain has time to determine that the information presented is safe and sends that information on to the “emotional brain” (amygdala), which produces the appropriate emotional response. This process makes sense, and, by and large, there is an unrealistic expectation that it happens under all circumstances. This misinformation causes many people to struggle with stress or trauma reactions because, in reality, it does not happen this way at all.
When your brain is under trauma or stress, it reacts completely differently. Under stress or trauma, your brain receives information from your five senses just like before, but now, this information proceeds to the relay station, where it is passed to the “emotional brain” and the “thinking brain.” If the “emotional brain” determines the threat is real, it skips the “thinking brain” and proceeds straight to survival, often known as fight, flight and freeze. Any thinking, decision-making or reasoning completely shuts down. Stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, are automatically dumped into your system to prepare your body to fight or flee. Your “thinking brain” does not come back online until your system is calmed and the threat of danger has passed. Bottom line: You cannot think your way out of a stress or trauma reaction!
A simple glance at current events surrounding the criminal justice field causes compounded stress and uneasiness. It is almost incomprehensible to try and gauge the level of stress an officer must endure in responding to calls for service. Officers may think thoughts such as, “Will I be encountering hostile individuals?” “Am I putting my physical safety and the safety of my loved ones in jeopardy?” “Will my actions and words be on video?” “Will my encounter go viral?” “Will I return home tonight?” These questions highlight just a few of the possible emotions officers may ponder on the way to and during a call. Now, more than ever, law enforcement and criminal justice professionals need additional tools to mitigate stress and build resilience.
You are trained to use your weapon without having to “think” about what you are doing through repetition and continued re-training. On the flip side, you are rarely trained to understand brain science enough to know why your reactions are different. Why you remember colors, smells, sounds, tastes or textures but do not remember how many times you fired your weapons or the exact timeline of events. When your “thinking brain” and many bodily functions shut down, you lose the ability to put words to situations and only react with your “survival brain.” If stress responses can be normalized and healthy coping mechanisms can be provided for situations that are truly not in your control, then the best is being done to help and protect those that protect us.
One way of addressing your own mental health and well-being is to work together with wellness professionals. As you look at your career as the “helper,” you often see that you advocated for others’ rights and well-being but often forgot about your own. In life, you cannot play defense all the time. You must actively focus on the offensive to survive. If you do not score points and train in your own personal wellness, you become depleted and are unable to operate to your full potential. For example, you do not take your vehicle to get tires at the doctor’s office. You take it to the tire shop where people are trained to deliver the best product. You are not called upon to make a buzzer-beater shot if you do not put in the hours of practice to ensure you have a high likelihood of making the basket. To ensure you can sustain your career and family, you must understand that wellness is not an option but a requirement that takes practice and dedication!
With knowledge comes power. With power comes recognition. Recognition creates the ability for not only accurately analyzing situations with others but, more importantly, for self-awareness. By providing criminal justice professionals the tools to recognize a state of trauma and stress before it becomes harmful, you create the opportunity for these professionals to not only positively change their immediate action but positively impact their career, family, physical health, mental health and entire being.
Elizabeth Strong is the program manager for Wellness/Mental Health Initiatives at NW3C since August 2020. Prior to joining NW3C, Elizabeth served as a program manager at The Innocent Justice Foundation and was a high-tech crime training specialist at SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics. She also spent five years in local law enforcement in two states, as a public safety dispatcher for the Grass Valley (California) and Helena (Montana) Police Departments.