At The Officer Survival Initiative we are committed to the cause of Traumatic Stress Injuries (formerly PTSD) in law enforcement officers, firefighters, and other emergency responders. We are very fortunate to have a relationship with Tactical-Officer.com which allows us to share articles from their site on our blog. This is the first in an occasional series that they, and we, will be running in the coming months.
In our blue culture we are taught from the beginning to grin and bear whatever it is we encounter. We have to be strong for the victims, for the families, or for our fellow officers. We are never told that others can be strong for us as well. One of the pitfalls police personnel encounter when dealing with trauma is the “Code of Silence” that surrounds our subculture. Many outsiders feel that silence is only to cover up crimes by police officers when in actuality that code is used to hide the pain an officer may be feeling.
In July 1999 I was involved in a shooting incident. A guy pulled a gun on me and I was fortunate enough that my training allowed me to react quickly, draw my gun, fire two rounds, and put the suspect down. I knew from the moment I saw his gun pointed at me that my shooting him was justified. When the dust settled and everyone was on scene I remember the sheriff telling me not to discuss the incident with anyone. I took him way too literally.
Outside my wife and a few close friends, all cops, I did not speak of the incident. My mother lived around 2,000 miles from me and I did not even tell her about it. I kept the incident as quiet as possible. In my mind I was following orders, in reality I was masking my pain.
Almost one year after the shooting the nightmares got to the point that I did not want to sleep. No matter what I did I always lost the gunfight in my dreams. What made me decide to take some action is when the dreams began to involve fellow officers and I could not react quickly enough to save them. I called the office and told the undersheriff that I could no longer work and needed counseling.
When word got out that I had done that the natural reaction of my fellow officers was to encourage me that I had done the right thing. I kept assuring them that I had no regrets about killing the guy at all and I think one or two even believed me. It was true, my nightmares were not because I killed a man; they were because I had begun to doubt myself, had developed PTSD, and was not talking to anyone about it.
Now, years later I understand that the value of talk after trauma cannot be overstated. Sure, many of us believe that if we need to talk about it we are less than we should be. Nothing is further from the truth. It takes courage to talk about what is bothering you. Talking about it makes you relive it and that takes courage. Years later I understand that I was less of a man because I failed to talk.
Talking about it does not mean going and stretching out on the shrink’s couch once a week; although if that is necessary there is nothing wrong with that. Talking about it can be between you and a friend, fellow officer, significant other, or whoever will listen and help. The important thing is to make sure whomever you speak to is not judgmental of you. You have suffered a trauma and are having a natural reaction to that trauma; you don’t need to be judged.
According to the website, Heal My PTSD, 77 percent of all Americans who enter psychotherapy benefit more than those who do not. Psychotherapy is simply talking about the issues. Psychologists use a variety of techniques to help you talk about the trauma and the symptoms you are experiencing.
Another promising statistic from the site is that 50 percent of people believe mental health treatment has lost some of its stigma. It is no longer taboo to seek help if you are having emotional problems. This only makes sense for law enforcement agencies. It is time leaders realize that just because an officer seeks counseling does not mean that officer is unstable. It simply means that the officer has seen something that has troubled him and needs to talk about it.
So if you are having trouble dealing with the horrors law enforcement officers encounter on a daily basis – talk about it. Talk to someone and help get those poisonous feelings and thoughts out of your mind. You cannot heal if you keep it bottled up. Like a shaken soda the pressure will only build and damage happens when the pressure surpasses the capacity of the container to contain it.
The Officer Survival Initiative is proud to support the work of Safe Call Now:
“Safe Call Now is a confidential, comprehensive, 24-hour crisis referral service for all public safety employees, all emergency services personnel and their family members nationwide.”
MAKE A SAFE CALL NOW. 206-459-3020
Russel Langley is a freelance journalist and medically retired deputy sheriff with a degree in English. He uses his more than 20 years experience in law enforcement to enhance his journalistic endeavors. He lives in Oak Ridge, TN, the home of the Manhattan Project, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.