Protect your mental health: Stop saying these 5 things

The first step toward overcoming mental illness involves pushing back against stigmatizing self-talk


One of the most encouraging trends in law enforcement has been the growing understanding of mental illness and how it affects families and the community in ways that directly involve the police and the critical importance of well-trained and equipped police officers as front-line responders to people in crisis.

Accompanying this trend has been the acknowledgment that cops are not immune to common psychological disorders, including depression and bipolar disorders, anxiety, and substance abuse and addiction. That cops face unique stressors imposed by the job, on top of those most everyone else struggles with at some time or another, is now well understood.

For decades cops have been too afraid to confess they are not doing well or seek help out of realistic fears of punishment or retribution, so it has been a welcome development to see cops and administrators, chiefs associations, police unions, trade magazines and others in the profession finally recognize both the critical role of police as first responders to mental health crises and the critical need cops have for mental health services. Unfortunately, this recognition isn’t yet universal, and even those who understand how important it might be for others still hold onto or fear stigma when it might be themselves who are in need.

Knowing and knowledgeably pushing back against stigmatizing self-talk is essential for officers as they consider seeking help for themselves. (Photo/Pixabay)
Knowing and knowledgeably pushing back against stigmatizing self-talk is essential for officers as they consider seeking help for themselves. (Photo/Pixabay)

Even as it has been reduced, both citizens and cops have to battle the stigma that may prevent them from asking for help. Here are five common stigmatizing beliefs and our response:

I am broken…that I have this problem means I will never be whole again

Like most diseases of the body – and mental illnesses are diseases and disorders of the body – most psychological disorders can be managed long-term through medical or therapeutic intervention or even cured. Maladaptive thought processes can be replaced, biochemical deficits balanced, coping and emotional regulation skills mastered, and crisis points passed with the help of supportive professionals.

Medical research has shown that treatment of depression has a 90% success rate when a licensed counselor and a psychiatrist, who can prescribe medication if needed, work together. Treatment of anxiety disorders is often as successful or even more so. Once under their integrative care, people generally report feeling more like their old selves in about 3 to 6 weeks.

While the psychiatrist or a highly trained and experienced nurse practitioner manages medication therapies, the counselor will identify and challenge patterns of behavior and cognition that lead to greater vulnerability to depression, anxiety, thought distortions and impaired functioning. Learning how to put more functional behaviors and thoughts into practice over time bolsters medication therapies and helps good feelings to eventually follow. It is the repetitiveness of good behaviors that finally begins to heal the depression and prevent its return.

I am weak…if I were only stronger, I could easily overcome this on my own

Would you think the same were you suffering from cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or an autoimmune disorder? Would you encourage someone on dialysis to will their kidneys to work harder, or to think their way out of being sick? Of course not. Nor should you put the same thinking in play when it comes to your mental health.

Experiencing depression, anxiety, or another disorder doesn’t stem from weakness, though it can make you feel weak, and the negativity and distorted thoughts mental illness creates make it extraordinarily hard to put the brakes on yourself and think your way out without help. Being able to say, “I need help, I can’t do this on my own” and finding someone to walk with you is actually a sign of great strength. Too many people try to fight their way past it on their own, with little success and sometimes tragic outcomes; don’t be one of those people.

I am abnormal…“normal” people don’t suffer from mental illnesses

Actually, if you suffer from a psychological disorder you may be more normal than you would imagine. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in any given 12-month period, 1 in 5 adults in the US will experience a diagnosable mental illness, with anxiety disorders being by far the most common. Over a lifetime, you have at least a 50% chance of experiencing a mental disorder. If you are an LEO, you know how many people you encounter in the course of a day in this number; look around your roll call and the numbers are probably no different. Again, however, most are not chronic or permanently debilitating and many, if not most, of the 20% from one year’s period will be replaced by others the following.

I am scary…if people know about me, they will avoid me

First, no one needs to know anything you choose not to reveal. Who you reveal personal information to and when is entirely in your control.

How you feel about people with mental illness and whether it is something to fear will in part drive how you present yourself to others. With understanding and self-compassion, you will come to an actual place of confidence in yourself, and that you know you are not to be feared. You cannot control how others think or feel, only your own actions and how you react to them.

As awareness has increased and people have spoken up about their own struggles and demonstrated that mental illness is something anyone can struggle with and most of us will at some point or another, old fears and beliefs are falling away.

I am shameful…mental illness brings disgrace to me, my family and who I am

Mental illness is not an indicator of character. It diminishes no one despite the struggles it presents; in fact, accomplishments in the face of struggle are all the more hard-earned and to be touted. Being on the inside, we know how it touches everyone from the most desperate and destitute to the most accomplished, and that none should be ashamed for struggling. Whether to feel shame or pride is largely a choice, as is how you confront a challenge.

Moving forward

Knowing and knowledgeably pushing back against stigmatizing self-talk is essential for officers as they consider seeking help for themselves, guiding those they are close to toward it, or counseling someone on a call for service. Our own minds and the stories we tell ourselves are often the biggest impediments to seeking help we face. Know the truth and change the self-defeating stories.

NEXT: Officer wellness: Prioritizing mental & emotional health (eBook)

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