I recently had a chance to interview Captain (ret.) Dan Willis formerly of the La Mesa Police Department in California about his new book Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responder’s Essential Resource For Protecting and Healing Mind and Spirit. Dan spent 26 years working in law enforcement and retired as a Captain from La Mesa PD. Dan worked as a crimes of violence, child molest, homicide and cold case detective, a SWAT Commander, and as the agency’s Wellness Program Coordinator. He is a graduate of San Diego State University with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Criminal Justice. He has taught for 10 years at the San Diego Police Academy, and has been Officer of the Year twice with nominations for Detective of the Year for the State of California.
Dan is a graduate of the F.B.I. National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, where he studied emotional survival issues for first responders. While he was attending the FBI National Academy he took a class that changed his life and set him on a path to help the people who worked for him and ultimately to write this book for others. Dan now takes his four hour training class to anyone that needs him, and feels he is really making a difference. I know he is.
Dan said that when he was in the Emotional Survival class at the FBI National Academy one of the other participants described himself as a “victim of my profession” and that got Dan’s attention as a classic example of how many people in our law enforcement profession feel victimized by all the… trauma and tragedy we endure of a career.
Dan Willis told me that he wanted to do something to promote emotional wellness and prevent police officer suicide so that is why he wrote the book Bulletproof Spirit.
In our interview we discussed much of the material in the book including:
The FBI’s BeSTOW Philosophy
Support from Home
Faith In Service and Chaplain’s Programs
The FBI’s BeSTOW Philosophy
Dan talked about his esteem for the FBI’s BeSTOW philosophy that he learned about from his NA class. The Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy uses the Beyond Survival Toward Officer Wellness (BeSTOW) initiative to educate law enforcement executives who attend the FBI National Academy about how to protect themselves and the officers they lead from the toxic effects of their profession.
The entire issue of the FBI’s Law Enforcement Bulletin in May of 2009 was dedicated to the topic of Beyond Survival and describes the BeSTOW philosophy. You can read more by downloading that issue here: http://leb.fbi.gov/2009-pdfs/leb-may-2009
Dan says that his whole emphasis for writing the book was to address the Number One cause of death for police officers which is suicide. Dan said we lose nearly 200 officers every year by their own hand which is more than are killed in the line of duty. He also says that we have nearly 120,000 officers going to work every day with symptoms of PTSD, and many don’t even know what they have, and just trying to cope through it.
Dan suggests that there are several ways to assess the trauma your spirit is absorbing from this job. His ex-wife told him one day that he was someone that she didn’t recognized any more. That was a wake up call for him. In the case of Dan’s marriage at that point it was too late to remedy but he began to learn more and change the way he lived his life and the book was one result.
The book lists 9 Warning Signs to watch for and also offers several Self Awareness Questions so you can do an assessment on where you are. Dan describes one warning sign as the feeling that we are “emotionally dead inside” and we begin to emotionally shut down and not engage with other people. Dan says that he realized this about 7-8 years into his career where he found himself emotionless. Another warning sign is having trouble with sleep. Dan says one study of over 5,000 cops showed that they only got 3-4 hours of sleep where they should be getting at least eight hours of sleep everyday.
Dan took his class at the FBI’s NA from former Special Agent Samuel Feemster about the importance of recognizing our spiritual connection to this profession. He suggests that we each find that connection to further support our calling as law enforcement officers. Dan also said that he had read the book Spiritual Survival for Law Enforcement by our own LESI Faculty member law enforcement Chaplain Cary Friedman. We all agree that this area is one that is under examined by law enforcement professionals and might prove to be very helpful to those willing to take a risk and examine their own beliefs about honor, integrity and why things happen the way they do in this world.
The emotional wellness chapter list a number of ways that you can control your stress, minimize emotional upheaval and get control of your personal life. He emphasizes how important it is to get a full eight hours of sleep each day and practice relaxation techniques that help fight the accumulation of negative stress in our bodies. Dan even talks about how he cured his own hypervigilance. You will need to read the book to learn more about that.
The chapter about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) really emphasizes the fact that PTSD is not a weakness but is all about what happens to you. He says that trauma and acute stress are totally out of your control as your mind processes things following a traumatic event. Unless we seek some professional support early on, the event can become stuck in our subconscious and that’s why we relive the event over and over in our minds. The important thing to note is that there are some very effective treatments for traumatic stress if we only choose to investigate them early and ask for help. Dan mentions treatments like EMDR and as effective in relieving the symptoms of PTSD.
Dan describes a real case he knew about of an officer who didn’t experience any negative effects for several weeks after a serious traumatic event but started having experiences seeing “phantom blood” or blood that wasn’t there but was a remnant of the traumatic event, who was almost immediately relieved after a couple of sessions of EMDR.
This concept is so vital to all that we do in law enforcement today. We depend upon our brothers and sisters on the job, so a well functioning peer support program is absolutely necessary to the care of our emotional wellness. Dan gives an example of a particularly traumatic officer involved shooting where the peer support team really saved the career and marriage of the officer involved. The officer also told Dan that he had been headed down a really dark road and may not even be here today if it hadn’t been for the help of his peer support team during his time of crisis. Powerful stuff.
Support from Home
Dan suggested that we all need to develop the nurturing relationships that we get from our spouse and family by creating a stress free home that promotes a place to relax from the job and spend quality time with our families. Dan says that our home life can also work against all that we are trying to do in promoting emotional wellness so it’s critical that we build and nurture these relationships so that they support and enrich our lives personally as well as professionally.
Faith In Service and Chaplain’s Programs
Dan says it can be so powerful if we are able to connect to a power that is higher than ourselves to add meaning a purpose to what we do in law enforcement. He talked about his experiences with his agency’s chaplain service and highly recommended that every agency should have a police chaplain’s program. He suggested that everything said to a police chaplain is confidential.
The book contains over 40 wellness strategies and in the chapter entitled Survival Lessons Dan talks about research that was done, and lessons learned by the San Diego PD in 2012, following a number of officer suicides, officer deaths and officers who were arrested themselves.
A couple of strategies he mentions in the book include an exercise asking what our families need from us each day in order to focus on what others might need from you. This adds purpose to your life and gives you a bigger perspective about your life’s purpose. Dan also said that as we become cops the job starts to consume us and keeps us from having a balanced life. Dan suggests that we all need to maintain our connection to the person and activities that we were, and did, before we started the job.
Now that he is retired and has finished the book, Dan is spending his time providing 4 hour Emotional Survival class to agencies that need his help. You can learn more about what he is doing by visiting his website at: www.FirstResponderWellness.com.
If you would like to listen to our 30 minute interview please click the replay button below or RIGHT CLICK HERE (that’s CONTROL CLICK if you use a Mac) to download (SAVE LINK AS…) a copy of the 7MB mp3 file.
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