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Be Your Own Advocate - A First Responders View When Dealing With Stress

Recently, on our radio show, MAD (Making a Difference) Radio, John Salerno and I had the pleasure of interviewing a subject matter expert in the area of post-traumatic stress. The organization she is with does a lot of research and connects grassroots organizations together to fill the gaps where treatment for stress, post-traumatic stress and mental health might not be available for first responders. During our discussions we talked about the gaps that still exist for law enforcement officers; The size of the agency, the willingness of the command staff to provide support to its officers, and budget. We all agreed on one major point. It is still up to us to ask for the help when we realize we need it or if another officer or supervisor approaches us. We must rid our vocabulary of the word “FINE” and bust through the stigma. There is a huge advantage here that sometimes gets overlooked. The reality is that you are not trapped by your command staff or organization. You can go outside your agency for assistance.

Over the years, the “control” that our agencies exercised in the area of mental health & wellness or the outright “suck it up” mentality influenced and bolstered the stigma associated with asking for help for stuff going on in our heads. No one wanted to risk being assigned to “the rubber gun squad,” or have other officers question our fitness for duty. The solution - say nothing, ever. As the suicide rate increased, the need to provide assistance of some kind was addressed by some agencies. Those agencies who took on the battle to help officers with their mental health sort of figured it out. I say sort of because the stigma continued to lurk in the shadows. Officers were not going to ask to “go to the department shrink” or the in-house employee assistance program. Why? Confidentiality. Their “stuff” would be known throughout the department. Officers were left with a no-win, no-way-out solution. Again, say nothing, ever.

Over the years as some departments saw command staff retirements, it seemed to usher in a new, younger, and more open personnel. The discussion of a budget for mental health and the creation of a Mental Health Liaison officer began. However, most officers that we have spoken to and departments we have visited have that liaison officer in an office right next to the Chief or Assistant Chief. So, while the open-door policy to get help for mental health was there, we were told that officers were not going to go to that office simply because of the proximity to the command staff where a conversation might be overheard or where questions might linger when the officer walked out of the liaison’s office. The solution, say nothing ever.

While these changes were occurring, the grassroots programs started. The realization that while the departments were trying, it was easier for an officer to go outside his/ her agency for assistance. The grassroots program provided confidentiality, which meant that the officer could get the help without the fear of reprisals or questions. In fact, many of the officers I met while I traveled to speak at conferences confided in me that they went outside their agency and were on the path to healing, all the while successfully maintaining their jobs and family life.

As some departments continued their awareness journey to aid their officers, the grassroots programs continued to grow. Some of them with the ability to offset department budgets which meant the departments could rely on them to help their officers. The departments were on a “need to know” information stream. Only if an officer stated they were going to hurt themselves or someone else was the department informed. Confidentiality, anonymity, and a comfort level were provided to the officer. As a result, we started to see dents in the stigma.

When departments created Peer Support programs, those that were successful saw a decrease in suicides and an increase in positive outcomes for the officers. Supported from the top, with an emphasis on ZERO reprisals by the department, officers could get the help they asked for. The result. The dents in the stigma grew larger. As the command staff’s awareness grew about the positive outcomes for their officers, the indicators showed that the department functioned better. And a good functioning department means a healthy department.

Are these “successful” departments the outliers? Maybe. The hope is that the grassroots programs and the departments work together to continue to put dents in the stigma, ultimately smashing it completely one day. What we still do know for sure is you are your best advocate. As hard as it may be, you must be the one to reach out and ask for help. The grassroots programs like A Badge of Honor are here to assist at every level. We allow you to be in control of your mental health journey, leaving behind the one thing that still hampers some requests from within the department…STIGMA. So, find the courage to be your own advocate. And remember, your journey may help to save another brother, sister, and/ or BLUE family. You are not alone.

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