One year after Newtown: Mental wellbeing following a critical incident
You’ve just done an incredible job dealing with an impossible situation, so respect yourself and get the help you deserve
With sad regularity, mass homicides of civilians — many of them children, like those murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School one year ago — are becoming a staple of the nightly news and a challenge to local law enforcement agencies who must deal with these horrific events in their communities.
Many local LEOs who have received basic training in community law enforcement may not be prepared for the logistical and psychological magnitude of such mass casualty events and therefore will have to rely on their existing training, experience, instinct and resourcefulness to deal with these human catastrophes. Until appropriate training catches up, this article will provide some basic insights and suggestions.
Mass murder is understood to be the killing of multiple victims (the generally accepted number is four or more victims not related to the assailant) in a single incident, typically using the highest level of lethal technology available to the killer. In most cases, this involves firearms, explosives or arson. Some types of mass murder are committed in the name of a political, religious or ideological cause; we label these terrorism. However, more commonly, these incidents involve a single disturbed individual whose fantasies of outrage and revenge impel him to explosive violence.
Reactions to a Mass-Homicide Incident
Police officers may show a variety of reactions to a mass-homicide scenario, depending on whether they arrive when the event is unfolding or has already occurred.
Shock: “This can’t be happening.” Especially for small, local police departments, the enormity of an unfolding mass homicide scenario can overwhelm both tactical response and emotional coping capabilities.
There may be confusion as to what to do first and how to respond appropriately. Following the incident, the sight of the dead and dying, especially when the victims are children, can be traumatizing, even for seasoned officers.
Anger: Following a mass homicide event, officers may be enraged that such an event took place in their community, on their turf, on their watch. Especially where the suspect is discovered to have a mental illness, the first thoughts are often along the lines of, “Why didn’t anybody see this coming and do something about it?”
Sadness/Numbness: In the immediate aftermath, there may be a dazed, zombielike mood that suffuses the entire community, including the police department. The more innocent the victims, the worse this demoralization may be. Some members of the community and police force may experience clinical depression.
Shattered Illusions: “If something like this can happen, what’s the point of anything I do?” Following a mass homicide event, many officers may have a hard time focusing on the more mundane aspect of policing.
After all, writing a traffic ticket or apprehending a shoplifter may seem pretty hollow when a dozen schoolchildren have just been mown down. On the other hand, some officers may have the opposite reaction, clinging gratefully to the sheer normality of everyday police work as an antidote to the horror they’ve just experienced.
Second Guessing: “Could this have been prevented? Is there anything else we could have done?”
Of course, 20/20 hindsight is an occupational hazard for most cops, but the greater the enormity of the tragedy, the more severe this self-flagellation is bound to be.
This may interact with the depression and shattered illusions noted above, creating a vicious cycle of anger, despair, and impaired departmental morale — made all the worse if there is critical media attention to the event.
Traumatization: A number of officers may develop post-traumatic stress disorder or other clinical syndromes, and may require professional help.
How to Prepare, Respond and Survive
The following are some suggestions, which should be supplemented by appropriate training.
Preparation 1.0: Preparation begins with specific training scenarios for mass homicide mobilizations. Training includes emergency chain of command, special tactics, and emotional-behavioral preparation for both likely and unusual contingencies.
For example, if you need to puke, pee or poop, would you know how to find the nearest fence or bush to crouch behind, do your business, mop up, and get back in action?
It may sound laughable — until it happens. The more you train for the greatest number and variety of contingencies, the more confident you’ll feel, and the less traumatic the event will be.
Preparation 2.0: This is the more immediate preparation for an actual event, right before you enter the scene. Recognize that it’s going to be intense. Try to organize the operation as closely as possible and focus like a laser beam on the task at hand, whether it is a hostage negotiation, tactical response, body recovery, or whatever.
There is a vast toolkit of mental toughness training, battlemind, and related techniques to draw from.
Hopefully, you’ve had the opportunity to train with these, so utilize them on-scene.
Support: Train as a team, respond as a team, and use team cohesion to bolster one another through this terrible ordeal, both during the emergency and in the aftermath. Social support can be a powerful healing force for dealing with tragedy, so avail yourself of your fellow LEOs to help each other out. Stick to whatever personal style is most comfortable for you.
Some people like to talk things out — others benefit more from remaining silent and just being in the company of their fellows. Use your own coping style and respect those of your colleagues.
Take it Easy: Go easy on the self-medication. No matter what I say, we know some of you are going to go out and get hammered after an incident like this. Just be careful and don’t be stupid, OK?
And if you see a colleague who seems to hitting it a little too hard, too often, and for too long, don’t be afraid to step up and offer your help and support.
Seek Professional Help: If and when you need it, that is. After even the most hideous event, the human psyche often shows impressive resilience and powers of recovery. But if this incident has resonated particularly hard with you and you’re having too hard a time getting over it, then man/gal-up and get the professional help you need.
Typically, psychological interventions after traumatic events are short in duration and high in effectiveness, so don’t suffer unnecessarily.