Your safety starts long before the threat appears
Officers should prepare ahead for emotional threats so they can more easily get back to a place of safety and strength
By Amy Morgan, MSC, CFRC(D), TECC-LEO
When you’re called to a critical incident, you don’t wait until you get there to learn the skills required to handle the call. You train and prepare your response ahead of time, so you can do everything possible to stay ahead of the threat.
The way you approach your emotional well-being should be the same – you know you’ll encounter a threat, or hundreds of threats, in your career. You know you’ll see really difficult things. Prepare ahead so that when each emotional threat comes, you can face it head-on, eliminate it as a threat, and get yourself back to a place of safety and strength.
What Are the Threats?
Those threats aren’t always a person or an event. Sometimes threats to your emotional well-being are the experiences you carry around as a part of life and a part of a career.
When does someone make the change from, “I’m stressed,” to “I’m thinking of suicide?” If you’ve known someone who died by suicide, you probably know that the first question always asked is, “Why?” We may know of a recent event the person was struggling with, and we look at the one event and think, “Why would they kill themselves over that?” But the truth is, we are all carrying around stress, hurt and worry that we don’t let others know about. It’s when those feelings start to pile up and become heavy, that it begins to overwhelm someone to the point where they don’t feel they have options anymore.
The typical goal of suicide prevention is to focus on the pile of stress someone is carrying, look for signs that they’re overwhelmed and feeling hopeless, and recognize that they could be contemplating suicide. But wouldn’t it be even more beneficial to try to prevent that point in time from ever happening in the first place? Pre-prevention is to live life in a way that manages and limits those stressors so that they never get overwhelming at all.
When the Threats Start Accumulating
Imagine someone holding an empty tray on their arms. An empty tray means no stress. But then life puts a heavy object, some sort of stress, on the tray. That stress will slow that person down a bit, but it’s still manageable.
If the person can manage that one object, deal with it and then remove it, the tray is back to being lightweight and easy to carry. But the more heavy objects we carry on that tray at the same time, the more challenging it becomes to carry it.
Pre-prevention of suicidal thoughts means doing what’s necessary, as we experience life challenges, to keep such thoughts from building up.
Trauma Is a Powerful Offender
For first responders, emotional trauma is a guaranteed part of their career. Humans are not designed to go through trauma and not to experience any consequences. These experiences become heavy boulders placed on that tray, and they will begin to wear someone down over time. Trauma isn’t supposed to be part of our lives…it is supposed to be the exception to the rule. But in a responder career, it often is the rule, and the repetitive experience of trauma can have long-term, debilitating effects.
The More Resources, The Stronger the Defense
We each have a limit to our defenses against different threats. Just like a community would bring in outside resources from neighboring communities for an overwhelming critical incident, we as individuals need to bring in outside resources to help when we’ve reached our limits.
Knowledge is also an extremely powerful resource. Learn as much as you can about what trauma and stress can do to weaken your resilience, and use that knowledge to fight back.
If someone experiences emotional trauma or a severely difficult incident, getting immediate help and talking about the experience can make a tremendous difference. Bringing in resources to add to your own can change an incident from becoming an ongoing threat to being a distant memory.
Lighten the Load and Stand Stronger
By using mental health and support resources, officers and first responders can begin to take those heavy objects off the tray, one by one, lightening the load, easing the heaviness and keeping the load at a manageable weight. Pre-prevention involves managing the stress and experiences as you go, to not let the weight ever build up in the first place. When you experience a difficult call or an incident that is especially hard to handle, talk about it, get help to process it, and put yourself in a place of strength by having managed it in the most healthy way possible. Don’t wait until your arms are so weighed down that you aren’t able to reach out for help.
About the author
Amy Morgan is the founder and executive training director of Academy Hour, a training provider offering mental health and leadership courses to law enforcement, first response teams and public safety personnel. She is pursuing a PhD in Psychology, specializing in Trauma and Disaster Relief, has earned a Master's degree in Counseling, and holds a Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Sciences. She previously served as the training officer for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. She is TCCC (Tactical Combat Casualty Care)/LEFR (Law Enforcement First Responder) certified.