In honor of those who served, those who continue to serve, and those who can never serve again.
When I attended the police academy 20 years ago, we were taught many of the typical things you would expect in order to become effective police officers. Some of the training our academy class received was learning the laws of Illinois, defensive tactics, verbal judo, CPR and firearms training. We were expected to participate in rigorous physical fitness activities, learn how to ground fight and protect ourselves from being disarmed, have perfectly pressed uniforms and shined shoes, and most importantly, work as a team.
While these physically and mentally demanding challenges and extremely high expectations from command staff were stressful and draining, our academy class immediately learned that we needed to work as ONE. We developed a bond that could not be broken. We left no one behind.
As a former police officer, I still hold the value of working together as ONE. When an officer is injured or killed, ALL officers feel this. This holds true for other First Responders also. The loyalty we have to keep each other safe is something that helps First Responders maintain resilience. This bond that keeps us together is sometimes difficult for non-First Responders, or civilians, to relate to. Part of the First Responder Program here at FCS is to work with the families and loved ones of the First Responder, to provide education on how to relate to and identify changes in your First Responder that may require some intervention.
Resilience and mental well-being were not something that we discussed in the police academy. But I am excited to say that this is changing, along with the culture of First Responders. “Mental health” often comes with a negative connotation, but this is also changing, and FCS is encouraging that change. EVERYONE has mental health, just as we have physical health, so it’s time we start taking care of ourselves and each other.
So how do we know when we need to talk to a mental health professional? In the First Responder world, this can seem tricky. Often when a friend, family member or coworker asks a First Responder how they are doing, they will hear the standard, “I’m fine”. While this may be the case, it’s important to recognize the effects that repeated exposure to trauma can cause.
First responders face atrocities in their work that most can’t imagine. In helping everyday people in the worst of times, they witness death, destruction, and much of the worst of what humans can do to hurt one another. The effects of exposure to trauma are cumulative, meaning the longer one has been on the job, the more likely they will be to have a reaction to trauma. Add on the additional stressors of shift work, being short staffed, disrupted sleeping and eating schedules, the current social climate where there may be a lack of support from the community and administration, and the current resistance to discuss mental health issues, and you have a perfect storm for some major problems.
Some of the most common mental health issues we see in First Responders include depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance use and suicide.
A First Responder who is experiencing the following symptoms should seek professional help to assess and treat the effects of their traumatic experiences:
- Hyper-arousal: anxiety, trouble sleeping, fear, irritability, or anger, as well as other physiological symptoms of arousal of the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Avoidance: avoiding reminders of the traumatic event, including people who witnessed it, the place where the event occurred, thinking or talking about the experience, and/or avoiding other people—withdrawing from others and isolating oneself.
- Intrusions: nightmares, flashbacks, or other intrusive thoughts or memories of the event.
- Psychic numbing: using substances to avoid feelings, feeling numb, spacing out, or feeling as if things are unreal.
First Responders do not need to have all of these symptoms to come to FCS and talk with me. If trauma symptoms are interfering with your enjoyment of things you used to love, if you’re starting to hate your job and question why you went into the field, or if the way you look at the world has changed, talking can help. Speaking to someone, particularly a mental health professional with First Responder experience, can be the difference between life and death for some.
I know how difficult it is to step foot into a therapist’s office as a First Responder. All I ask for is just one meeting with me. Just one, so YOU can decide if you want to maintain or build resilience through improved mental health.
If you are a First Responder, or know and love one, who would benefit from using our First Responder Behavioral Health Program, please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 630-844-266, ext 273.