Law enforcement work is tough on the body and often results in injuries, both treated and untreated. When an injury results in extended time off work, the resulting functional impairments, navigating the medical system and stigma from work peers can create additional stress for the officer and their family. To understand and support a partner who is going through these issues, it is first important to understand some of what they may experience.
The physical sensation of pain is uncomfortable and can be downright agonizing. In addition to the pain resulting from the injury itself, research has demonstrated that there are mental and emotional components that influence the perception of pain. For example, what are the thoughts connected with the pain? How does pain impact the person’s sense of purpose? Common responses I’ve heard from injured officers include: “I can’t take this anymore.” “It will never go away.” “I can’t even be a good spouse.” Or “I can’t do anything I used to do.” To the extreme, dealing with chronic pain can become so distressing that a person experiences depression, hopelessness and may even consider suicide to end their suffering.
In addition to the addictive properties of some commonly prescribed pain medications, the effect of pain medication can also help numb unpleasant thoughts and emotions, creating a temporary sense of relief. The risk for alcohol abuse is also increased for injured officers who may drink to avoid taking prescription pain medication or to enhance the pain-relieving effects of medication. This dangerous combination of substances can interfere with the body’s natural ability to heal, disrupt sleep and inadvertently lead to a serious medical emergency.
Injuries often result in temporary or permanent functional impairments that can impact the ability to perform daily activities, both on and off duty. This can be a difficult adjustment for some officers as they find it challenging to rest or refrain from their usual activities. Think of how it might feel to be unable to function at your normal level — irritability, anger, depression and anxiety are common. Injured officers I’ve talked with tend to have difficulty sitting still, doing nothing and relying on others for help with transportation or daily tasks.
Law enforcement personnel often like to identify the issue and “fix” it right away. Unfortunately, medical recovery is sometimes a bit more complicated. Recovering from an injury takes time and often involves various medical interventions (e.g., medication, physical therapy, injections and surgery). Additional factors, such as receiving insurance or workers’ compensation provider authorizations for treatment (or getting denied), scheduling appointments with medical providers and complications or limited responses to treatment interventions, can create additional stress and strain. These issues can result in feelings of being helpless and powerless, frustrated, anxious or depressed.
Stigma in the workplace
When an officer is off work or on light duty due to an injury, their co-workers may gossip or spread rumors. This is often the case for those injuries that are not easily observable or apparent by looking at the person. When someone looks “fine” on the outside (e.g., smiling, no cast, no medical device, not missing a limb, not scarred), it is easy to assume that nothing is wrong. This can lead co-workers to make false assumptions such as, “They are milking it,” “They just don’t want to work,” or “I can’t believe they are gaming the system.” When this happens, the work environment can feel awkward, judgmental and stressful. Feeling judged or labeled as a “faker” by peers can have a profound impact on the injured officer’s well-being and recovery.
Although you can’t speed up the recovery process for your injured partner, there are still things you can do to support them. Here are a few suggestions:
- Check in to see how they are doing. This is especially important for those individuals who require extended time off work. It is common for peers to reach out immediately after the injury; however, this often fades away as people go back to their usual routines. Over time, this can feel isolating and demoralizing for some. The simple act of just checking in with someone consistently over time can make them feel that they matter.
- Normalize what the person is thinking and feeling, especially if you have personally been through a similar experience. Just knowing that certain responses are normal under the situation can reduce the level of distress. It can also help to share what helped (and didn’t help) if you have been injured and off work or light duty in the past.
- Offer to visit the person at their home or take them out for coffee or a meal. This can be a helpful distraction and can also reduce social isolation.
- Offer practical assistance, such as going on a grocery store run or driving them to a doctor’s appointment.
- Remind them of available resources such as peer support, chaplains, counseling and specialized organizations such as The Wounded Blue (thewoundedblue.org).