A big part of why we continue to suffer from stress, is we never create a safety net for ourselves. Creating a safety net means that we are never alone and we are not able to take a "time out" or heal. I want to thank The Blues Police Magazine for publishing...
First Responder Trauma: Setting up Your Safety Net
You tell yourself you have had enough and that you cannot go on like this. You are overwhelmed, exhausted, and burned out.
“Why didn’t I say something?” you ask over and over. “I need to say something.” And then your mind shifts…
“Who do I tell?”
“Who is REALLY there for me?”
“Will I look weak?”
“Will I be treated differently?”
“Will I still have a job?”
PAUSE…DEEP BREATH…Then you tell yourself, “Never mind…”
As a law enforcement officer, it is vital to build a safety net for yourself so when times get tough, and they will, you can ask for help without going through the never-ending mind games, arguing with yourself, and then burying your frustration, your hurt, your pain.
The statistics are not on our side. In 2020, 177 police officers died by suicide. Although that number is down from the record 239 in 2019, research suggest that our COVD response is what kept our heads in the game. (BlueHelp.org) But with the anti-police sentiment at an all-time high, psychologists and police officers say the constant barrage of criticism is more traumatic than the life-and-death situations officers face on the job. They expect the number of police suicides to start climbing again. “I hope I’m wrong, but I think the number of police suicides will start to creep back up,” said Sherri Martin, a former police officer and national director of the Fraternal Order of Police’s national officer wellness committee. “Long term, the number of anti-police sentiments could take more of a toll than a singular incident you can compartmentalize,” she said. “This is a widespread big wave of things coming at officers at once rather than a small whitecap.”
As strange as this may sound, find some comfort knowing that you are not alone in this struggle. But do not let that dissuade you from setting up a safety net and asking for help. As law enforcement officers, we are conditioned to be problem solvers. When we try to solve “ourselves” however, it does not always work out the way we had planned. The increased stress and trauma from the job has most of our brains in constant fight or flight, which means the “executive” reasoning part of our brains (frontal lobes) are not able to function optimally.
According to the National Institute of Justice, “Law enforcement officers commonly work extended hours in ever-changing environments that can cause great mental and physical stress. Enduring fatigue for a long period of time may lead to chronic fatigue syndrome, a health problem characterized by extreme fatigue that does not improve with bed rest and continues to worsen with physical and mental activity. Fatigue can impair an officer's mental and physical ability, create a cycle of fatigue, limit job performance, and damage an officer's health (Officer Work Hours, Stress and Fatigue).
The brain then, needs time to regroup, to heal. For example, if you broke your arm on the job and it was casted, you probably would not rip off the cast, tell yourself, “I’m okay,” and go participate in a tactical building entry or in a defensive / control tactics training exercise. You would give your arm time to heal, perhaps change your job roles for a short time or go on light duty and then return to full duty when your arm was healed. Why don’t we give our brain time to heal? When we find ourselves stressed out to the point where we cannot sleep, where we feel like we are constantly frustrated, overwhelmed, and burned out. If the research already says that we are at a disadvantage which may cause mental and physical stress, would having a safety net in place give us the ability to help ourselves heal?
Imagine reporting for duty each day, your safety net in place either with someone at work with whom you could confide or having confidential resources at hand easily accessible with a click and call. Perhaps your department already provides that or perhaps hopefully it is in the works. One thing is certain, given the dismal statistics that surround the law enforcement community, we owe it to ourselves to be the best we can be, to give ourselves outlets for stress and trauma, so we can be there for our families, and our communities. How do we do that?
I have been asked that question thousands of times over. As a founding member of A Badge of Honor (abadgeofhonor.com), I understand being overwhelmed due to post-traumatic stress as I am a 9/11 first responder, front and center in the elevator in WTC Tower 1 when American Airlines flight 11 struck it. I reached a point where I thought the only way out was to take my own life. The biggest lesson I learned was that without a safety net, law enforcement officers may eventually find themselves floundering without an ability to see a way out. There is no built-in invisible shield to trauma and stress that comes with the job. It is up to each of us to create a safety net for ourselves, so when our shield is dented, damaged, worn out, we can let go a little, get off our own back and start talking. Talk to your partner or colleague, to a family member or friend. Talk to your dog (I have three). Just get to talking. We build our safety net by deciding to explore training and workshops for resiliency. A Badge of Honor has an upcoming workshop on April 23, 2021 in Texas. We build our safety net by reading about stress and its effects on us as law enforcement officers. We build our safety net by asking for help from a 100% confidential source. It takes the same amount of courage to run into a burning building as it takes to ask for help. We train the emergency response to help others, now it is time to train ourselves to recognize when to ask for help.
When we build our own safety net, we can show up for shift knowing that no matter what is thrown at us we have the skill, knowledge, strength, and resiliency to handle the stress and trauma. It is never going to be an easy road, but that is not why we took the oath. If it were easy, we never would have answered the call to serve.
Samantha Horwitz has been featured in Police Blues Magazine before. She is a 9/11 first responder, former United States Secret Service Agent, speaker, and author. Her book The Silent Fall: A Secret Service Agent’s Story of Tragedy and Triumph after 9/11 has helped many first responders navigate through their own journeys with post-traumatic stress. She and her business partner, ret. NYPD detective John Salerno created A Badge of Honor, a post-traumatic stress and suicide prevention program for first responders. John and Sam host MAD (Making a Difference) Radio each Wednesday 7pm central live on FB @Makingadifferencetx. For more about Sam and wellness and resiliency workshops for first responders, visit SamanthaHorwitz.com or ABadgeofHonor.com.