The other day my wife, the Sarge, and I were checking into the annual Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) National Conference in Chicago, when we saw one of my old buddies from my Tucson Police days. Jack Harris had been a street cop who then rose to the rank of Commander and retired to become an outstanding counselor specializing in law enforcement issues. It was natural that he would attend this very important meeting of hundreds of folks concerned about the emotional and physical health of those who serve and protect, as well as that of their families.
Over the next couple of days, Jack and I had several chances to catch up and I had an opportunity to tap into his insight over issues that were and are very troubling to me. Suicide, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, divorce, PTSD, and a host of other contemporary challenges were brought up during the conference, and I was impressed with Jack’s approach to dealing with some of these problems. One of the interesting points he made was how often he had to deal with the “self-diagnosed” PTSD victim. These guys (and gals) were often self-medicating (alcohol and/or drugs), and when he pinned them down as to how they made their “diagnosis” he discovered that they often didn’t have a clue as to what PTSD actually was.Jack then did a little mental exercise with these folks where he challenged them to do another diagnosis. Suppose instead of a traumatic emotional event they had been involved in an accident? After the accident they find they can’t stand up, and when they look down their right lower leg is at a 90-degree angle; what is their diagnosis? “A broken leg!” they all exclaimed with certainty, and that’s when he hit them with an important fact check: “And what would you do next?” To which the obvious and consistent answer was, “Go to the doctor…Oh yeah!”
The epiphany is that, regardless of whether your self-diagnosis is for a physical or an emotional injury, the solution is the same: See a dang doctor. Go to the professional to fix what is wrong. Self-medication is an unsatisfactory, and often self-destructive, choice. Pain, mental and physical, is real and Jack’s path of self-illumination helps crime fighters realize there are solutions to their not uncommon problems. The challenge that Jack has discovered, to his dismay, is that many agencies and administrators still stigmatize having mental health issues and/or outright discourage their officers from seeking the help of a professional.
Jack finds this problem sometimes stems from the fact that the medical organizations themselves often do not understand the maladies and stress our profession can create, and they also have a consistent misunderstanding of what constitutes actual PTSD. Check out the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders to get the latest actual definition of what constitutes PTSD.Too many times, an officer is traumatized by an event and misunderstands the post-event trauma as a long-term, rather than short term, aftereffect. Sleeplessness, nightmares, anxiety, and other problems are NOT unusual after a terrible occurrence, and we should embrace the fact that these are natural side effects of experiencing something far outside of our concept of “normal.” Administrators need to understand that traumatized officers require intervention from professionals to prevent long-term problems.
I have a friend who worked for several years as a detective investigating crimes against children. He was excellent at it; so good, in fact, that they would not let him transfer when he cried, “Enough!” Finally, he sought help for the night sweats, nightmares, and anxiety, and the agency tried to find him unfit for duty. He had to fight to keep his job, even though he had begged to be relieved of the emotional burden he was carrying. This isn’t such an unusual case, and I hope all administrators reading this article ask themselves how open their agency is to caring for the mental health of its folks.
As we become more and more aware of the emotional cost of keeping our communities safe, and dealing with the day-to-day tragedies in those communities, it becomes essential that we develop systems to help our people heal and get the help they need. And if you are one of those self-diagnosed sufferers, ask yourself, what you would do if you self-diagnosed a physical injury instead of an emotional one? That’s right…get to a doctor.
Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of “JD Buck Savage.” You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.