The West Coast Posttrauma Retreat

Editors Note: This is a guest article written by Anne Bisek, Psy.D. about the activities of the West Coast Posttrauma Retreat.  They are trying to learn more about PTSD and how it affects law enforcement officers and other first responders.  Please help them out by taking their online survey and maybe referring someone you know to them for assistance.

Pedro sat in front of his computer, when Jay snuck up from behind him with a can of jalapeño flavored jelly beans.

“What the –?” Pedro gasped.
Jay laughed.  “You gotta try one of these. Hey, what are you doing? That looks like Survey Monkey.”

Pedro grabbed the jar away from his colleague, a veteran of the police department for 9 years.  “You are going to hurt someone with that.”
Inside, Pedro breathed a sigh of relief. This was the first halfhearted attempt at a practical joke he had seen from his friend in months.  Since the last SIDS call, Jay had lost his usual spunk, and was less interested in the banter at the office.

“Yes, this is Survey Monkey. I am filling out a questionnaire for a group called the West Coast Posttrauma Retreat.  They are developing a new questionnaire for PTSD because the current ones are normed on civilians and don’t fit us cops.”

“So you have PTSD?” Jay asked hesitantly.
“That is not the point.  WCPR needs a lot of cops to fill this out because what is normal to us isn’t normal to the general population.  The measure will also be able to… look at the recovery process of a psychological injury.”

Jay looked concerned.  “What if someone finds out you are really crazy?”
Pedro shrugged. “You have done Survey Monkey before.  I am not asked for my name or any identifying information. Besides, this is one small way I can help out this important group.”

“What does this group do?”

Pedro answered, “West Coast PostTrauma Retreat or WCPR is a group of current and former first responders who provide peer support to public safety employees whose lives have been impacted by critical incidents on the job. They hold monthly retreats where cops can go to get educated about critical incident stress and ways to cope or heal from it.”

“Define a critical incident; I mean our whole job is one big critical incident.”

Pedro replied. “Good question.  A critical incident is a call that sticks with you. Not every call for service requires a debriefing. The calls we go on where we can’t sleep afterwards, can’t let go of and really affect us are the ones we need extra tools to deal with.”

Jay hesitated, “I’ve never heard of this place. Is it some new age hippie commune? Who goes to a retreat after a call like that?

Pedro replied, “Reasonable questions.  The West Coast Posttrauma Retreat has been around since 2001. This July will mark the 68th retreat. The 425 First Responders who have attended the retreat came from small town departments where they have known the victim involved in their critical incident, to big cities where the media has taken on their critical incident.  Some first responders were new to this line of work, and others have had years of service and many critical incidents.  The majority (77%) of clients come from California; although 19% travel from out of state to attend, as WCPR is one of only three programs in the US that treats first responders for PTSD and substance abuse.”

“First responders?” asked Jay, “So it isn’t just for cops?”
“No,” replied Pedro, “It is also for active duty and retired fire fighters, California Highway Patrol, dispatchers, paramedics, Drug Enforcement Agents, Coast Guard members, and Sheriffs deputies.

Check out these other stats.”

Female = 20%
Male = 80%
Working at time of retreat = 49%
Not working at time of retreat = 48%
Retired at time of retreat = 3%

Jay sounded skeptical.  “Last thing I need is to have my head shrunk by some Doc who has no clue what I’ve been through.”  Pedro agreed.  “Nobody needs that, would cops like us show up year after year if the Docs didn’t have a clue?”

Jay shook his head, “You got a point.  A place like that would probably get shut down on reputation alone.”

Pedro clicked his mouse to enlarge his the view on his monitor, “Let’s check out the staff bios on the website.”

Clinicians who volunteer at the West Coast Post Trauma Retreat center are culturally competent with first responders. Dr. Joel Fay is a psychologist and was until March 2011 a full-time police officer with the San Rafael Police Department.  Dr. Mark Kamena is a psychologist, and also worked as a police officer with the Berkeley Police Department. Clinicians and peers are paired together to conduct the in-depth in person intakes at the retreat.  This gives the program credibility in the skeptical eyes of officers.

Jay raised his eyebrow and cocked his head to the side,  “Ok, so maybe these Docs are different. Still, I don’t want to sit around singing Kum ba Ya with them.”

Pedro smirked. “I promise, no singing, no Huggie Squad in this house. The mental health professionals here will teach classes about critical incident stress, the neurobiology of trauma, family and relationships, and rescue personalities.  Thursday evening Dr. Emily Keram presents PTSD from a psychiatrist’s perspective and answers questions clients have related to medications. Thursday, after four days of classes, modified group debriefings and one on one time with peers, the clinicians provide trauma focused Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) in a 90-minute session.
A graduation ceremony is held Friday morning, and clients leave with a 90-day plan they have created with staff.”

Jay leaned back in his chair. “But I’m just not the type to hang out with a bunch of shrinks for a week. That just ain’t me.”

Pedro agreed. “Got ya.  It is not all about the shrinks. Check this out; this place is peer lead, and clinically guided. Peer counselors, chaplains, and clinicians volunteer all of their time at the retreats. Some active duty first responders volunteer to cater in a dinner each night during the week.”

“Who are the peers?” Jay asked, clearly interested.

“Peers are first responders just like us who understand what we face on the streets and in the briefing room.” Pedro saw this caught his friend’s attention and handed him the WCPR brochure.

“Some peers have come through the program as clients and may stay for a few days or the entire week as outside peers. These peers are asked to attend Peer Support classes such as those designed by the late Dr. Al Benner or the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, or local trainers in their area.”

Jay laughed, “Remember that old commercial for Hair Club for Men?”  Pedro cracked an easy smile, “You are dating yourself now buddy!”

Jay’s face turned serious for a minute.
“My wife tells me this would all go away if I didn’t’ get so shitfaced.  But right now I’m telling you that the only thing that is actually helping is drinking. I’ve never been a big drinker because I don’t want to follow my Dad’s footsteps. But things changed after the last baby not breathing call and I don’t know what to do about getting some sleep.”

Pedro nodded. “These people have been there, done that.”

Pedro went on to explain that during the retreat, a group of first responders active in the Alcoholics Anonymous community share their experience, strength and hope with clients.  They introduce clients to the A.A. model of substance abuse treatment.  Forty-five percent of clients have a substance abuse issue. For the remainder, the meeting is a chance to observe in the likelihood they could take a friend to an A.A. meeting in the future.

Jay sighed. “You know all of this stress has had its affect on my wife.  I had to admit it, I try so hard not to bring my work home with me. Wouldn’t it be great if they had some thing like this for her?”

“Careful what your wish for amigo.” Pedro grinned. “There have been six retreats for Significant Others and Spouses (SOS), which follows a similar 6-day WCPR format.  SOS retreats are provided once a year.  The best part is they only cost $500 for the week!  A branch of Soroptomists International from the Marin County provides the scholarships for the family members of first responders.”

If you are interested in volunteering, would like to refer someone to the program, make a donation to this nonprofit 5103c, please visit our website at for more information.  If you are a current or former first responder we would appreciate your completing the questionnaire.  We are currently looking for all first responders, not just those who are experiencing current distress. The questionnaire may be found at the following website:

Pedro the Peer Supporter is a fictional character, but the resource is real.

These are good people and they can use your help!  Please go take the survey and CLICK HERE to visit their website and learn more about what they are doing.  Maybe I’ll see you there!

CLICK HERE to download a PDF brochure (5.5M) about their program.

Anne Bisek, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in Fremont, CA and volunteered for three years at West Coast Posttrauma Retreat.  Her practice focuses on first responders.  She is the mental health professional on the San Mateo CISD team, and also provides debriefings for the California Highway Patrol.  CLICK HERE to send Anne an email or she can be contacted by phone at: (510) 797-4911.

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About Editor

John Marx was a Police Officer for twenty-three years and served as a Hostage Negotiator for nineteen of those years. He worked as a patrol officer, media liaison officer, crime prevention officer and burglary detective. Also during his career he served as administrator of his city's Community Oriented Governance initiative through the police department's Community Policing project. Today John combines his skills to consult with businesses about improving both their security and their customer service programs. John retired from law enforcement in 2002. When one of his friends, also a former police officer, committed suicide at age 38, John was devastated and began researching the problems that stress creates for police officers. He decided he needed to do something to help change those problems and he wanted to give something back to the profession that gave him so much. He started a project that has evolved into Put simply, the mission of CopsAlive is to save the lives of those who save lives! gathers information, strategies and tools to help law enforcement professionals plan for happy, healthy and successful careers, relationships and lives.
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