Police officers experience numerous job-related stressors, including physical danger, administrative and financial vulnerability, shift work, staffing shortages and increased overtime, repeated exposure to trauma and violence, role confusion, responsibility for others and stimulus extremes. When off duty, officers may face additional stressors, including family conflict, relationship issues and financial strain. At times, these stresses can overwhelm an officer’s ability to cope, which can lead to a crisis. Many cops are reluctant to seek help due to stigma and the belief that they should be able to handle things on their own. So, how can you support a partner in crisis?
Your first task is to take a deep breath, slow it down and remember that looking messy during a crisis is quite normal.
What is a crisis?
Generally speaking, a crisis occurs when someone is faced with a difficult situation, attempts to cope with it and finds that their usual ways of coping are not effective. At this point, a sense of urgency sets in, which can cause feelings of anxiety and panic. If the crisis is not resolved or the person is unable to adapt, they can develop more extensive problems, including depression, anxiety or panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, health problems and so on. When a crisis occurs, there is often a loss that is real (e.g., losing a loved one, being injured, not getting a promotion) or perceived (e.g., loss of an idea, goal or dream). This might be a single incident or an accumulation of incidents. When trying to ascertain if someone is experiencing a crisis, it helps to look at both intensity and congruence. In other words, how intense are their emotions and behaviors, and are their emotions and behaviors congruent with the situation?
How can I support my partner?
People in crisis can look “messy” — they may cry, pace, shout or fidget. This does not always mean that they are having some kind of “mental breakdown.” As someone supporting a partner in crisis, your first task is to take a deep breath, slow it down and remember that looking messy during a crisis is quite normal. Behaviors such as crying, pacing, shouting or fidgeting often help the person in crisis discharge negative energy. You must be able to tolerate the amount of upset and feelings that the person is expressing. If they are not injuring themselves or others, or exhibiting poor judgment, let them do what they need to do.
The following are some additional techniques to help you support a partner in crisis.
Maintain emotional distance
It can be a challenging task to provide empathy, support and assistance to a partner while also keeping appropriate emotional distance to stay objective and not take on the problem as your own. Be aware of your own feelings as you are working with the person. Use of tactical breathing techniques can be helpful to keep you grounded.
Be a container
By just sitting with a partner in crisis, you can lend the person support and strength to help them regain control. Think of yourself as a lifeline that the person in crisis can hang on to. By remaining emotionally and physically present, you send the message: “I will stay with you. You will be OK. I will not let you do something crazy.”
Do little things
You can help a partner regain their sense of control by assisting them with small tasks and making small decisions. Ask simple questions, suggest simple tasks or get your partner to make small decisions to help pull them out of “feeling” and into “doing.” This can remind them that they still have control of many aspects of their life and provides a break from the overwhelming feelings. It is important to not try to help a partner in crisis by doing everything for them; that usually leaves them more time to focus on distressing feelings and can worsen feelings of helplessness or powerlessness.
Consultation versus advice
Consultation involves a discussion of the problem with both persons working on developing a solution together — listening to their ideas, offering your own ideas and helping them discuss and evaluate the different options. It is up to your partner to decide which option to pursue. Advice-giving implies that you are telling them what to do based on your opinion. Giving advice to someone in crisis can be risky for a couple of reasons. People in crisis often feel helpless. If you provide the answers, you deprive the person of the opportunity to regain a sense of control by coming up with their own solution. Solving the problem for the person only provides a Band-Aid. By teaching the person to problem-solve, you give them a valuable tool for the future. You may not have all the information you need because the person left something important out. Thus, the advice you give might not be as sound as you think. If you give someone advice and they follow it and have a bad outcome, they may hold you responsible (or you may hold yourself responsible). In most cases, it is best to assist them in finding their own solution, because they will be the one to implement it and live with the outcome.
Be sure to reach out to your partners if they look like they are struggling and connect with additional supports if you need them. It’s a good idea to identify what resources are available to you and your partners in the event of a crisis — for example, peer support, chaplains, mental health professionals and crisis hotlines.