By: Brian T. McVey, MAP
Over the last several months we have seen protests, gun violence and anti-police sentiments break out in cities around the country it has made national headlines. Unfortunately, the news doesn’t report the toll these circumstances take on officers across the country. If we truly want them to work at their best there needs to be a constant spotlight on the unique stressors those working in law enforcement face.
Our goal is to go home at the end of the night. If you are blessed to work your entire career without getting physically injured, consider yourself lucky. But, as we know, countless officers, and civilian staff members, go home daily with an emotional toll that few could possibly understand… Officers risk their lives daily, running towards the gunfire when everyone else is running away. We forget about our own safety while trying to help other people we have never met. We go to the countless calls regardless of their color, race or religion. These officers deal with victims who are drug addicted, drunk, shot, stabbed, raped and abused. Quickly rendering aid, writing a report and it’s on to the next call. No matter what part of the triage stage, the officer keeps going. The amount of energy that it takes to deal with these calls all day, everyday is not only exhausting but killing officers.
Most think of this in a physical sense and either forget or ignore spiritual, psychological and emotional wounds. If you are blessed to work your entire career without getting injured, you are the lucky exception. Countless officers go home daily with an emotional burden that few understand. Officers deal with victims who are drug addicted, drunk, shot, stabbed, raped and abused. They touch the victims to calm and save them, and hear and write their horror stories. They search the suspects and offenders that sometimes raise the hair on the backs of their necks because the evil is palpable. Safety is compromised helping people never met and who sometimes return the effort with insults and hate. Again, all calls are answered regardless of the color, race or religion of those asking for help. Rendering aid, writing a report and moving on to the next call if the order of the day, every day. The emotional capital expended dealing with these sins daily is at very least exhausting and sometimes fatal.
The violence and its fallout that officers see is one part of this equation. Officers see, feel, touch, taste and smell the awfulness these incidents and sometimes vicariously feel the effects of grief-stricken families. This causes chronic stress that often leads to overwhelming dire consequences.
Law enforcement officers are plain tired. Unending calls involving tragedy, working long and odd hours, makes many officers return home exhausted with little motivation to do anything but sit in an easy chair with a beverage and channel surf mindlessly while ignoring his health and familial duties. Self-repair is often ignored and the reasons little understood by officers. The emotional cost of being a police officer is real.
A few agencies are trying to do better, and fewer have programs and protocols in place that work. In Chicago, seven officers committed suicide in under a year –three were on duty. I can’t help but think about the first officers on-scene having to deal with one of their own.
I recently spoke to a Chicago Police officer that was on the scene of an officer who was killed (murdered) in the line of duty. This officer spoke to me about the toll of hearing the bullets whiz by his head. He went on to talk about the amount of blood on scene. He saw the officer and immediately thought he was dead. Any officer that has been in this type of violent encounter involving an officer’s death can never forget. This officer spoke about the emotional toll. He needed time off to let his mind-body and spirit unpack this critical incident while suffering survivor’s guilt and second-guessing his response on the scene, both quite normal, nevertheless agonizing.
A major problem he mentioned was the betrayal of his boss. To think some bosses would be critical of officers is unthinkable. But, I’ve known bosses who would say, (not verbatim) “OK, it’s back to work”. I couldn’t help but feel for this officer because he already felt betrayed by the politicians and the communities he’s served. He went on to say, “Being betrayed by your boss, a fellow officer is terrible. Leadership must acknowledge and help officers dealing with (emotional) issues when they happen, rather than letting them accrue over time when the grief becomes unbearable. Most officers should get counseling skills so that can function properly and effectively with their families at home, especially when they don’t understand what it is you do.
Very few officers come out of their career undamaged. We must be reminded to take care of ourselves, don’t wait for a doctor’s script; show that you value yourself; give yourself the benefit of a monthly health and wellness day – take a day off! How about getting that massage you’ve been putting off? Treat yourself to a nice meal with your family, spouse or friends. We all know the issues we are facing daily, the question comes down to this, are you working on your emotional toll?
Here are some healthy suggestions to manage the horrors encountered.
• Remind yourself daily by reflecting on your day and recognize what parts of it were difficult and why. Too many bury these feelings and worse, drink, eat or engage in promiscuity for the fleeting pleasures they offer for a few moments.
• Carefully assess other options before accepting meds from a doctor to mask feelings. Meds should be last resort. What is often diagnosed as mental problems is really being overwhelmed by daily routines and the problems of life like relationship issues, financial problems, and failure to address small things until they grow into monsters that are difficult to slay.
• Meditate daily – download the Headspace app on your phone, the first ten sessions are free and you can play them over and over or search youtube for meditation. There are hundreds to choose from, including religious options.
• Demonstrate that you value yourself by putting a monthly health and wellness day on your calendar that focuses on healthy pleasures. Here are suggestions.
o A massage
o A Mani/Pedi
o A haircut and shave
o A good meal with or without good company
o A nature hike, or long bike ride
o An hour alone in a church
o Read a book
o Confer with a financial advisor
o Volunteer somewhere you are appreciated
o Write a paper about the last thirty days
o Write a list of things you are thankful for
o Visit someone you ought
The issues facing law enforcement are exceptional and must be addressed routinely and often in unconventional ways. The price paid ignoring them is too steep for us and our families. What are you willing to do to stay healthy and safe for yourself, loved ones and peers? I hope it is more than reading this article.
Brian T. McVey, MAP is a proud dad, freelance writer and former Chicago Police Officer injured in the line of duty in 2012. Brian has a Masters Degree in Police Psychology from Adler University in Chicago Illinois. CLICK HERE to contact Brian
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