If you’ve kept up on the news recently, you’ve read about some seriously horrendous incidents, from the beheading of a child in front of an officer to parents suddenly killing their families before killing themselves to multiple officers being ambushed and murdered.
What’s the common denominator in all of these incidents?
Cops are there dealing with them.
Although you can bet those officers are staying professional and doing what has to be done in the midst of a nightmare, there’s little doubt these incidents are taking an emotional toll. Here we explore “emotional first aid” tips you can use to help stabilize yourself and your family after you’ve dealt with a really bad call.
Have a plan to involve your spouse/significant other when things are bad
If your tendency is to clam up after a rough day and to completely avoid work-talk, consider changing your ways, particularly if you’ve just dealt with a traumatic call.
“It’s understandable that an officer who’s been subjected to an emotionally jarring incident would be hesitant to talk about it,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, a seasoned expert in police psychology and executive director of the Force Science Institute. “However, keeping your spouse or significant other completely in the dark about what you’ve experienced could be a recipe for domestic disaster.”
Lewinski, a former Street Survival Seminar instructor who for years trained police officers and their spouses nationwide on emotional survival issues, says that doesn’t mean you need to tell your spouse every painful detail. “For some officers, that may not be helpful and could cause the unprepared wife or husband undue duress,” he says. “The point is to clue them in to the fact that you’re dealing with a painful experience so they have at least some understanding of why your behavior might change a bit.
“If your spouse senses that something is really bothering you, he or she may probe in an effort to be helpful,” says Lewinski, “If they’re not getting insight into what’s going on in your life, they may become increasingly concerned — and even angry — and their probing will likely continue. This can result in frustration on both sides, and could even end up with your spouse emotionally disconnecting with you, which will ultimately make things worse. Lack of communication can become a harmful wedge in your relationship.”
Lewinski suggests having a plan in place that can help you tip off your spouse without making things emotionally worse for yourself. “The idea is very similar to establishing an off-duty family survival plan,” he says. “In an off-duty plan, you establish a ‘code statement’ that immediately lets your family know that trouble is brewing. Prior to this, you have all developed an appropriate plan of action and each of you knows what to do to deal with the situation.
“An emotional survival plan is very similar,” says Lewinski. “You and your spouse develop a statement through which you can clue them in to the fact that you’ve been involved in a particularly trying incident and that you’re going to need help through their support and understanding. Depending on your personality — and your own personal needs when it comes to dealing with painful emotions — your family can take the action you’ve pre-determined is appropriate and helpful. If it’s to give you space and avoid probing, that’s what they know to do. If it’s to sit quietly while you vent, that’s what they’ll do.”
Lewinski cautions officers to remain aware of their spouses’ needs as well. “Certainly your direct involvement in a particularly bad incident makes you the center of concern,” he says. “But you can’t forget that watching a loved one navigate painful emotions can be extremely difficult for the loved ones around them. You need to make sure you get the space you need — if that’s what you need — but you’ve also got to realize that allowing yourself to remain isolated emotionally can be bad for your family and ultimately make things much worse for you. Remain aware of the fine line between giving yourself time to gather your thoughts and sliding into a hole of isolation and silence.”
Acknowledge that the incident was in fact horrific
“Some cops have a tendency to believe they’re supposed to be emotional super-humans, tougher than other people,” says Lewinski. “They buy in to the misguided idea that seeing bad things is just part of the job and letting it ‘get to you’ is a sign of weakness and ultimately of professional doom. ‘Tough up, suck it up and move on…they’ll be more where that came from.’
“Actually, the opposite is true. Yes, by virtue of their jobs, cops do see more bad things than most people. However, refusing to acknowledge that witnessing those things can be emotionally painful and believing that experiencing those emotions is a sign of weakness is what can ultimately jeopardize your ability to stay in this line of work for the long haul. Real strength comes in being honest and courageous enough to face painful emotions head-on and to navigate through them.”
If the incident was bad, say it was bad. Don’t minimize it and write it off as just being “part of the job” in an effort to avoid painful emotions.
Accept your lack of control
“One of the scenarios most feared by cops is one in which they have no control and no ability to help the helpless,” says Lewinski. “Sometimes that kind of scene plays out in front of them, like the officer who was recently forced to witness a child’s beheading and could do nothing about it.
“Other times, cops are called to the scene after the terrible deed has been done and they have to face the painful fact that they weren’t there to help prevent the incident and that they’re powerless to resolve the aftermath. What’s done is done and they’ve got no control over that. For police officers, who are driven to confront, prevent, and protect, that’s a nightmare.”
Lewinski suggests that one of the most helpful steps you should take after an event like that is to accept the facts, without second-guessing or dreaming up unrealistic ‘what if’s’ like, “What if I had driven to the call faster, what if I had said something differently, what if I had taken action sooner…”
“Sometimes bad things happen and there’s nothing anyone could have done about it,” he says. “You can wish that weren’t so, but it is. It’s important to accept that. If you had no control, admit it...and believe it. This will help free you up from the burden of dealing with unwarranted guilt, which can make difficult times much worse.”
Don’t avoid discussions about a bad incident and if you have to, start them
Ever found yourself thinking, “I just want this day to be over so I can act like it never happened” or “The sooner I forget about this nightmare, the better!” All understandable thoughts, particularly after a bad incident, but following through on them is not advisable, says Lewinski.
“Humans have a natural tendency to bury thoughts, emotions, and images deep in their minds if they’re painful or if they make them feel vulnerable,” he says. “Police officers can be particularly susceptible to that. They can have a tendency to think, ‘Hey, if thinking about this incident hurts, then I’m just not going to think about it. I’ve got total control over myself. If I don’t want to think about it, I’m tough enough to just erase the whole thing and move on.’
“Some people can ‘compartmentalize’ their emotions, which basically means they hide them in a mental ‘box’ and move about their day without any sign of distress. Those emotions may surface later in a different setting, like when they get home, but when they’re on the job, it’s as though there’s nothing wrong at all. They just put the emotions in a ‘compartment’ and move on for the time being.”
Lewinski says he’s seen a couple of particularly common scenarios play out after a bad event, neither of which tend to prove helpful in the long run. “Sometimes cops get together over a few beers, talk about how bad the incident was for a little while, realize that it’s becoming too painful to think about, and switch the subject. ‘OK, that’s enough. Sonofabitch! What’s this f’ing world coming to anyway? Let’s talk about something else. I’m done with this!’
“Another way I’ve seen these incidents play through is for the cops involved to simply put their heads down, nod in silent acknowledgement of the nightmare they’ve been thrust into, then move on with some kind of silent pact that this incident won’t be brought up again unless it has to be.”
Lewinski points out that discussing a bad incident with fellow officers — others you trust — is crucial to keeping yourself mentally on course. “I’m not necessarily talking about a touchy feely hug session,” he says. “If that helps you, great, but for a lot of officers, that’s uncomfortable. What I’m talking about is having the courage to share the truth about your emotional reactions to a bad event not only with others who can benefit from your candor — like fellow officers who witnessed what you did — but also yourself.”
Give it time
“Officers often have a tendency to focus on immediate action and resolution. Sometimes, their lives depend on it. However, it’s absolutely essential that they realize that emotional recovery after a bad call doesn’t always happen in a short period of time,” says Lewinski. “Sometimes traumatic emotions can linger. They can go away and unexpectedly resurface or they can stay forefront in your mind for some time.
“The key is to give yourself the time you need to reconcile your response to the event,” he says. “If it’s taking more time than you expected to move through the feelings, or if they seem to go away and then suddenly surface again, like on the anniversary of a traumatic event or when you happen to drive by the scene again, don’t let that throw you. As we used to teach in the Street Survival Seminar, these are normal reactions to an abnormal situation.”
Read five more “emotional first aid” tips for cops
What do you do to help yourself cope after a really bad call? E-mail us your experiences and we may share them with other officers.