Law enforcement officers are used to helping other people. It's why they joined the profession. But with this type of outward looking mindset, they often have difficulty stopping to take care of themselves, mentally and physically. It's often said of moms, but it's also true of officers: you can't take care of others if you don't first take care of yourself.
Learn How to Provide Medical Aid
One way you can proactively safeguard your health is by knowing how to provide yourself medical aid when you're injured on duty. In the academy, all officers receive basic training in first aid. But in the case of serious injury, that won't be enough to save someone's life—including your own.
"We live in a world now where the risk for penetrating trauma is increasing by the day," says Dr. Lawrence Heiskell, an emergency physician and a veteran reserve police officer with the Palm Springs (CA) Police Department. "It's paramount that law enforcement officers receive some advanced medical training above and beyond what they learn in the academy."
He recommends that all officers learn how to apply a tourniquet correctly and use a clotting agent or pressure dressing to stop massive bleeding, apply occlusive dressings or chest seals, and insert nasopharyngeal airways to allow for breathing. "The needle decompression for relieving a tension pneumothorax is also a simple procedure with minimal risks and easily taught and mastered," Heiskell says. Self-application of a tourniquet can be tricky if you're not used to it, especially if you're in a firefight, so it's important to practice the technique under pressure. You must also of course carry these medical supplies with you on duty. An individual first-aid kit (IFAK) is great for this purpose.
It's important that you receive professional training from an experienced paramedic or physician so you can perform these tasks correctly. It's not enough to just read about it online or watch a YouTube video. To maintain these perishable skills, Heiskell says a refresher course once every three years is reasonable.
Live a Healthy Lifestyle
To maintain overall health, you need good habits. Law enforcement officers go through a rigorous exercise regimen in the academy and therefore start out their careers very fit, but it becomes more difficult to maintain this level of fitness over the years. Long shifts spent mostly sitting in a vehicle and grabbing food on the go are par for the course, and finding time to exercise outside of work is challenging.
Knowing this, it's important to be aware of weight gain and address it if necessary. To avoid weight gain and maintain health, exercise regularly and make healthy choices when eating, on and off the job. Either bring a healthy lunch with you on duty or choose salads or chicken without fatty toppings if you go to a fast food restaurant.
When you're off duty, make sure to get enough sleep. It's also important to take the time to decompress. This includes spending time with friends and family and pursuing hobbies that you love.
Factors that can adversely affect officers' health include a stressful marriage or relationship, excessive drinking, smoking, fast food, and a lack of sleep or abnormal sleep patterns because of shift work.
All of these things can also affect your heart. A heart attack is usually brought on by a combination of factors, including obesity, high cholesterol, stress, excessive drinking, and smoking. But another factor could be a genetic pre-disposition for heart disease.
Heiskell recommends that officers get screening tests to check their cholesterol and get a stress test after the age of 40, especially if they become tired after exertion or have shortness of breath. These could be early warning signs that need to be evaluated.
Some officers are in denial or don't want to admit any weakness, so they shrug off the warning signs of a heart attack. Simply put, don't do that. "If you feel like something is not right, something is probably not right," says Heiskell. "Anytime you have chest pain on exertion or at rest, feel nauseated or shortness of breath, get evaluated immediately."
If you think you are having a heart attack call 911 immediately. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, sit down and rest.
Maintain Your Mental Health
While physical fitness is something every officer recognizes as important and is usually comfortable talking about, mental health can be a more difficult topic to broach. But many of the good habits that keep the rest of your body healthy are also good for mental health. And there are more resources out there for issues that healthy living can't fix.
Stephanie Samuels is a therapist who has a practice exclusively for law enforcement and lectures nationally on PTSD, resiliency, and suicide prevention. She also started Copline (www.copline.org), a nationwide suicide prevention and mental health hotline for law enforcement officers (See "Preventing Police Suicides," POLICE, June 2017). She has helped officers work through every imaginable issue.
In addition to an overall healthy lifestyle, she recommends maintaining a good balance of some type of spirituality in your life and relationships with non-law enforcement friends. Hobbies can be helpful as well, but she cautions against turning a hobby into a second career because it might not provide the needed relaxation or stress reduction once it becomes a profession.
Also important is good communication with significant others and family members as well as friends. It can be difficult for people to understand what officers are going through: the stress they are constantly under and the awful things they see and experience on the job. Samuels wants officers to understand, individually and as a culture, that it is good, normal, and healthy, to talk about what you're going through. If you can't do that with someone else, then seek out a therapist.
"Officers don't want to tell their wives the bad things that are going through their minds on the job, so they tend to bottle it up, and that can lead to self-medicating or high at-risk behavior," including infidelity, Samuels says. So therapy can be a way to talk these things out before they cause larger problems in officers' lives. As Samuels says, "Therapy may cost money up front, but it's a lot cheaper than a divorce."
And when you experience something that shakes you to your core, therapy is an important resource to take advantage of. Keeping it inside is extremely dangerous to the psyche. "I think it is imperative that an officer see a therapist after being involved in an emotionally charged incident," says Samuels. And she emphasizes that this is different for every person. It doesn't have to be an officer-involved shooting. "We don't know what the officer takes on the job with them, so we don't know what is emotionally charged for them," she says.
Samuels is characteristically to the point on the importance of officers focusing on mental health: "The bottom line is they've got to figure their shit out in order to survive and thrive in a toxic environment."
It's easier said than done. But whatever specific issues you're facing, in order to safeguard your own health, you have to do something about it.
"It's about setting life's priorities," says Heiskell. "If your health is important to you, and you have a winning mindset that you are going to be healthy and stay healthy, you will be. You will have a lifestyle change and stick to it."