My criminal justice students often ask me what it was like to be a police officer in an inner city. I have to be careful how I respond because they are very young, have never lived in the city, and haven’t experienced the underbelly of city life. Sometimes the best I can do is explain to them that policing is a unique way of life and officers are frequently exposed to a reality alien to the majority of people. At this stage of their lives I won’t tell them about the devastating effect psychological trauma often has on those called to service.
So, how can law enforcement officers who are routinely exposed to overwhelming traumatic events which affect their physical and psychological wellbeing retain a sense of inner peace and yes even happiness? In other words, the very nature of the job is an alternate life style which may rob us of our vitality and inner core. This overwhelming psychological trauma results in members of our profession having a high rate of suicide, divorce, and heart disease. We die young and many of our brothers and sisters self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs to mask what we see and are often required to do.
Sources of Psychological Trauma
We are living at a time of the claw and the fang, where the care-giving aspects of policing are practiced in an environment of hopelessness, despair, and corruption. Those who have dedicated their lives to having a positive influence on other people are continuously exposed to overwhelming traumatic experiences akin to military combat. Drive-by shootings, murders, drugs, suicide, the homeless, Aids, domestic violence, un-employment, poverty, child abuse, and the list goes on and on. One need only to have the unfortunate experience of being in an inner city emergency room or local precinct house to experience the horror in which our officers work every day.
There little wonder that many of our police officers have become disillusioned, burned-out, and engage in a variety of self-destructive behaviors which devalue themselves and their professions.
Some are simply unhappy — others have lost the joy that the gift of service to others, their community, and their country once brought them. At training programs, seminars, and on retreats they describe to me a feeling of isolation and emptiness — an “inner hunger.”
They have lost their shadow, the certainty that their lives have significance and that being a lawman is meaningful. Many are experiencing the various stages of disillusionment resulting from the conflicting values, cynicism, and social isolation which are often byproducts of working in occupations where there is a great deal of continuous trauma. People who have chosen policing as a way of life are especially vulnerable to a slow draining of enthusiasm and positive energy. In giving so much of themselves to others it becomes increasingly difficult to rekindle the fire that first drew them to policing as a way of life.
Traumatic Events Affecting the Psyche
Here is a brief list of some of the sources of psychological trauma police officers are faced with:
• Officer-Involved Shootings
• Fatal Traffic Accidents
• SWAT or hostage team assignment
• Serious Assault, Rape
• Narcotic Unit Assignment
• Officer involved hand-to-hand combat
• Bomb Squad Assignment
• Homicide Investigation
• Dive-by Shootings
• Self-defense combat
• Dealing with persons with AIDS, the homeless, mentally incapacitated, etc.
In order to do the work required in these horrible situations a police officer places what he sees or has to do in the back recess of the mind. The problem is that the mind eventually has to process this information and this is where the psychological trauma comes to the forefront and the officer may become desperate to relieve his or her mental anguish. As the bandage around the emotional trauma wears off — often years later — the detrimental effects of suppressed emotions (wear and tear to the body/psyche, or ‘wounds to the soul’) come out and are exhibited. Since the police culture constantly reinforces emotional hardiness as a precursor to success and often devalues the need for therapeutic assistance, our brothers and sisters suffer from the detrimental effects of traumatic experiences often dying at an early age, most often alone. When the work that police officers do drains them of their emotional energy there is little left over for family and friends.
It doesn’t have to be this way! We can live lives of service to others while living a life of joy, fulfillment, and happiness.
Coping With Overwhelming Trauma
We need to come to the realization that police officers beat to a different drum than other people and move towards self-affirming thoughts and behavior.
How do you strengthen your body, mind, and spirit? Well, think of yourself in terms of a triangle with three evenly spaced braces which support one another. If all three braces are strong, then the triangle stands firm, the tension and strength of each brace firmly bonding together. However, if one of the braces weakens, the triangle begins to sag, requiring the other two braces to work harder to support it. If more than one brace weakens, then the triangle collapses in onto itself. The ancient Greeks used the symbol of this trilogy to represent the harmony that must exist between the body, the mind, and the spirit for people to function at their highest level.
As we settle into the experience of policing many of us stop taking care of ourselves. We eat too much of the wrong foods, become overweight, drink and smoke too much. Add extreme stress to this mix and eventually we all have to pay the piper-often in some form of cardio vascular disease, stroke, heart attack and/or clogged arteries. Cholesterol is the killer for those who wear the badge and carry the gun. You may want to consider the following suggestions:
1.) Get a physical exam which includes blood screening and have your cholesterol checked.
2.) Alter your diet and begin an exercise program. Pump some iron, hit the heavy bag, walk or run for 40 minutes. Join a health club, exercise three or four days per week or pay the price later in life.
We came to service wanting to make a significant difference in the lives of others. We all want to intervene to save a child, arrest the bad guy and protect the innocent. However, if the psychological trauma of the job is affecting your psyche it causes a slow draining of your ability to be a guardian for others. To prevent burning out we need to develop the ability to know when to step back and recharge our batteries. Find something you enjoy doing-take a vacation to a far off place, join a chess club, collect stamps, write a series of short stories, coach a team of small fry’s, etc. The point is we need engage in positive things that broaden our perspective in order to allow the mind to heal and recharge.
The spiritual leg of the Greek triangle represents “peace of mind”. It’s a combination of knowledge of self and awareness of what brings joy into our lives. This requires Inner reflection. Ask yourself the following questions:
1.) Am I happy” If not, why? What positive steps could I take to achieve a sense of joy about life?
2.) Where do I see myself in three, five, or ten years from now? How do I get there?
3.) Am I making a significant difference in the lives of the people I love? My mother and father, significant other, brothers and sisters, children, and colleagues? What could I do today that would make a difference to them?
I hope you will reflect on some of the points I have tried to make in this article. I don’t claim to be an expert on post-traumatic stress. However, after decades of doing the job it seems to me that a more proactive approach is needed. What do you think?
Be safe out there!
Larry the Jet