I am so very thankful for the First Responder Foundation and the platform they gave me to tell my story. Helping First Responders By Being Open About Trials & Troubles was the first blog post written by Police Officer Stephen.
After that article was posted, my wife and I were given the opportunity to go on two separate podcasts, and the number of messages I received was astounding. The number one question I got, however, was “How can I help”? So that got me thinking. What can we do to help our brothers and sisters to be open about mental health issues?
Being Open About Mental Health Issues
I know after coming to terms with my own mental health and having to face the stigma in the first responder world, I fought it for so long because I was afraid of a few things in particular. One of those worries is that I was going to lose the respect and trust of my coworkers. This job is life and death. There are no two ways about it. Every day we put on this uniform and walk out the door, we know it could be our last. It is imperative that we are able to trust the men and women around us. It’s important that our spouses trust those around us. If we lose that trust, we are worthless to our brothers and sisters.
So for a long time, I feared that if my brothers and sisters knew what was going on inside my head, they wouldn’t trust my ability to make the right decisions. To be able to be there for them when they needed it. Well… I was wrong. After that first article was posted, I received so many messages thanking me for being so upfront and honest about mental health and law enforcement.
I got messages from guys that had just a year on the street to guys that are near retirement. People told me that my message made them feel less crazy, less weak, and normal, for feeling the way they did. So back to the question, how can we help?
If you have done this job for any length of time, you know the calls that are going to leave an impression.
The suicides, infant deaths, the bad accidents, the child abuse calls. So when you hear them come out on the radio, and you hear your brothers going to it, even if it’s not your call, just make a mental note. Know that officer is going to see things he probably won’t ever forget. Give him a few days to process the call and then check on him (her).
I have discovered that if I try and talk to one of the guys immediately after a call like that, they often aren’t receptive. They still have that wall up. You know the one we put up to get through and do our job? But if I give them a day or two to process what just happened, they are more likely to open up.
So… meeting up with a coworker and sitting door to door in an empty parking lot can be more helpful than I think a lot of us ever realize. Let’s go back to that whole stigma thing again. If the Sergeant or the Lieutenant calls you into the office to debrief after one of those calls, what is the average cop going to do? He’s going to clam up. He’s going to tell them that everything is alright, and it’s just part of the job. There is a sense of intimidation there.
No one ever wants to be in the sergeant’s office.
It always makes you feel like you are in trouble. On top of that, you have a supervisor as the one asking you the questions. You can’t help but think, “If I tell them this call bothered me what are they going to do?” Now I am not saying that everyone feels this way, but I can speak from experience and say that I did.
So the way we help with this is to look out for each other.
Keeping that stigma in mind, if you meet up with a buddy and ask him if he’s ok, there are a couple of things at play. First, you are coming to him, he isn’t going to you. So that takes the pressure off of someone having a hard time with a situation. It takes a lot of courage to reach out and ask for help. I will be honest, I didn’t have that courage for a long time, but things may have been different if someone had come to me. Second, you are on level ground. You are his beat partner, his buddy, his friend. You aren’t a supervisor who he is afraid might take away his gun or send him home. The chances of someone who is struggling to be open and honest with someone in this situation are a lot higher than being called into the sergeant’s office. This feels more like a friend checking in than an agency trying to cover liability.
When I meet up with guys after a particularly rough call, I don’t go empty-handed.
What I mean is that I already have the name and number of a therapist written down. Again this comes from a place of experience. When I first came to terms with the fact that I needed help, I didn’t know where to start. I obviously wasn’t going to go to EAP through the county. I was terrified that anything I said would get back to them. So even after admitting to myself that I needed help, it wasn’t until a few months later that I actually did it, and it was only because another cop gave me the name and number of a person they had seen. The beginning stages of working on yourself can be very overwhelming.
You don’t know where to start, who to talk to, or who to trust. So be prepared, and going into the conversation armed with a way to take the pressure off of the person you are trying to help can be the difference between them actually seeking help, or continuing down the path they are going without help. If we truly are committed to helping our brothers and sisters, this is just a small step we can take that could make a huge difference. All the guys I have this conversation with end by giving them the name and number of a therapist. I make sure they know that if they go, or don’t go, I will never know.
Their privacy is important and I won’t ever repeat this conversation to anyone. I will never follow up and ask them if they went to see anyone. That is none of my business. But I make sure they understand that going to see someone is not admitting they are weak. I have the ability from personal experience to tell them I see someone twice a month. Want them to understand that it is ok and perfectly normal, and want them to trust me and feel like they can come to me without feeling pressured or judged. I think so many of us have seen others struggling and wanted so bad to reach out, but just didn’t know-how.
Peer support programs are becoming more and more prevalent in our profession. We are slowly chipping away at this stigma that has plagued us for so long, but we still have a long way to go. So even if your agency doesn’t have a peer support program, don’t hesitate to reach out to someone if you think they might need it. You never know how much you could truly help. (First Responders Foundation offers Peer Support Training – in-person and virtual)
Be Open About It!
The last piece of advice I can give in relation to helping our fellow first responders may not be for everyone, but I think it’s just as important to mention. If you have come to terms with the fact that you needed help, and have gotten that help, consider being open about it. Don’t hide that you saw a therapist or took medication. When I was first put on my medication I was so scared that I was going to get taken off the road.
But when I called my LT in personnel, I found out that others were just like me. Now if any of those people had been open about the struggles they had been through, it would have made my walk so much easier. So don’t be afraid to be a trailblazer.
If others know that you have walked through the same fire and survived, you can make the journey for them that much easier. I will not hesitate to tell another cop that I take medication or see a therapist. Refuse to allow that to be taboo and refuse to allow them to think they have to hide what they are going through or feeling, and do this by sharing my story. I encourage you to share yours as well.
First Responders Foundation Mental Health Program
Again we thank Police Officer Stephen for his sharing his journey and for answering the questions, “How can I help?”