PTSD Month: How YOU Can Help an Officer with PTSD
Editor's note: This is the 4th and final post of the Mental Health/PTSD Month series on this blog brought to you by the Family Support Committee of Backing the Blue Line. If you haven't yet read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3, PLEASE check them out and SHARE them. If these words even reach one person who reaches out for help, then together we've made a difference. A lot of work has been done to update and expand the Resources section to better serve Minnesota law enforcement officers and their families.
Officers are so loyal to each other. They would do anything for each other including barreling into the depths of hell to make sure each other make it home at the end of their shifts. They even feel guilty and want to rush out the door if they are home when something bad is happening to one of their own. So why is it that the minute an officer says they are having a hard time after a call that loyalty and that fierce need to protect their own disappears? Those officers need their partners more than ever and instead of the “yeah, that was some messed up shit” response those officers need, they get crickets or “suck it up.”
According to the The Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders study done by the Ruderman Family Foundation, more officers died from suicide last year than they did from line of duty deaths. They continue to say that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression rates among police officers are found to be 5 times higher than the general population.
This makes sense because what person could go to work day after day seeing some of the horrific things law enforcement officers see and not be affected by it one bit? They see the stuff that we get to pretend doesn't exist. They see the children who are kidnapped and raped. They see the dead babies hurt by the people who are supposed to be protecting them. They see the car accidents where people are mangled and dragged down the freeway. They see the gunshot victims and hold their organs in their bodies and tell them to hold on, they're gonna be okay when they know they're not. They don't get to pretend that the bad isn't there in our town and our community. They see it all. They feel it all.
Law enforcement officers go through so much in a short amount of time and are not able to decompress like they should after every “incident” or call. Their brain and bodies endure more than they are made to handle. It has nothing to do with how "weak" someone is, which is how many in the field feel like people see it. It is a completely normal reaction and more LEOS (law enforcement officers) struggle than most would like to admit.
I spent a lot of time over the past few months talking with many officers and significant others of officers who live with PTSD and depression so I could try to better understand how WE can help them feel comfortable enough to reach out for help. How WE can help leos to realize it is natural and okay not to feel okay. That there is help out there and it may be scary as hell to face it but you can move forward and not feel like you are drowning in anxiety, paranoia, rage or depression. There are a lot of officers successfully working their jobs while living with PTSD or anxiety or depression because they got help and talked about the stuff that bothered them instead of bottling it up inside until it burst and overflowed.
I learned a few things when talking with these LEOS and their families about their mental health struggles.
Significant others. Girlfriends. Domestic Partners. Wives. You seem to be the ones who get the brunt of it all. It is not your fault and you are not alone. There are many others in your shoes and I’d be happy to connect you with a few. The big question you all try to answer, how can you help your LEO?
Don't make them talk. They will talk when they are ready. When they are ready to talk, try your best to just be there for them. They might have taken a long time to build up courage to talk about it. Don't judge them.
Sometimes it isn’t big critical calls that cause the hurt. A lot of the time it is the cumulative build up of many things over the years. They may not even know what it is that is bothering them or why. Just listen. Never tell them what they are dealing with isn't a big deal or to get over it. Don't minimize it, it's real to them.
Be empathetic but don't try to get overly emotional, because in reality they don't want you to feel the burden they have. If you get too emotional they might think they are hurting you. Of course it's ok to shed tears with them. Stay close to them if they allow. They can feel very alone while dealing with it. Let them know you are there and will continue to be there.
Educate yourself on PTSD, the more you know about it, the more you can try to understand and help them. (Read one MN police wife's real story about life with her officer and PTSD.) Note their “anniversaries” or “important dates” of incidents that have bothered them. They know the days and when that time comes around during the year, things might be off a bit. Understand they can throw out a lot of emotions and it's not meant to be directed at you or the ones they love. Give them the space they may need during that time, but again let them know you are there. Remind them there is a future. Sometimes they are living by the minute, they aren't able to see tomorrow just yet.
Expect they may become distant from you and family or the things they loved to do. Keep inviting them to do things even if they keep saying no every time you ask them. Even though they say no, it's still showing them they aren't alone and you want them around.
Watch the alcohol intake. If they start drinking all the time or drinking differently from their norm, it's possible something is up even though they aren't talking. But above all, remember it is NOT your fault and you are NOT alone. You do not deserve to be their sounding board for hurtful things.
Reach out for help for yourself as well if you are feeling alone, helpless, anxious or depressed. Secondary PTSD is oh so very real. And if they continue to spiral downward and refuse to seek help, reach out for them.
Partners. Co-workers. Brothers and sisters in Blue.
You are the hardest on your own.
I had more than one officer say the Thin Blue Line is a joke, and that is the filtered version of their responses. There is no such thing as having each others backs because if there was, it wouldn’t be so hard for LEOS to talk to each other about stuff that is bothering them. And those that want to seek help may actually do it without fear of being ridiculed by their own. One officer talked about how she came back to the station after a critical incident and ended up puking. Another female officer saw this and told her to knock it off. That she is giving female officers a bad name. Another officer talked about how their partners joked about them committing suicide. Another talked about how their superior told them to just not hurt any of them. Another talked about being shunned.
You turn into the black sheep.
Maybe it is because if they are seen talking to you, then you’ll be associated as weak too. Or maybe it is because no one knows what to say. So they say nothing. They pretend you don’t exist. You all see things that “normal people” never even imagine could happen. You all go to call after call dealing with crap. So stop pretending that the one person who is brave enough to speak up is the odd ball out.
Chances are, a lot of you feel as alone as them at some point and just need to get it out. So let them get it out. Ask them if they are okay. Ask them how they are doing. Tell them you’re there if they ever need anything. Sit with them. Don’t judge. Do not shoot them down for being open about it. Do not shut them out or treat them differently because they are brave enough to say that shit was messed up. Because it's when you shut them out, when you continuously dog on them, that is when it spirals. They have nowhere to turn. The law enforcement community is its own biggest hurdle. Mental health, PTSD and depression in officers, that stigma needs to stop within your own community before the rest of the world is even going to look at it.
Chiefs. Sheriffs. Leaders of the Department.
Step up and take the time to look into training about mental health for your officers. I promise you it will be 100 times worth it. Start talking about it. Start understanding that this is a part of taking care of your department. Mental health is just as important as physical health, defensive tactics and firearm training. Work towards offering help for your officers that need it. Make sure critical calls have debriefings.
Having a policy that says there will be debriefings and actually having those debriefings is a big difference. Make sure officers have a chance to talk through it. At the very least reach out to someone who can help them talk through it. Lead by example and don’t just ignore it.
Officers who are struggling.
It's okay that certain things bother you. It's okay to have feelings. It's normal to have feelings. That officer sitting right next to you has those same feelings. Maybe not at the same time and maybe it won't affect them at the same call that it affects you, but every officer at some point in their career hits that wall where they just need to talk to somebody. They just need to get it off their chest. Find someone to talk to. If you are sitting there saying I have no one, you are wrong. I will always listen. We at Backing the Blue Line are always here for you. Reach out to us. (Read one MN LEO's real story about his experience with PTSD.)
There are resources out there that can help if you or a leo you know is struggling.
Soldier 6 and Courage Service Dogs are Minnesota based organizations that provide service dogs to officers struggling with PTSD. Minnesota Association For Injured Peace Officers (MAIPO) pair LEOS with a mentor (another LEO who has been through a similar situation) who helps provide information and recommendations on available resources and benefits to the injured officers and their families. Under the Shield Foundation is a 24/7 anonymous phone line to call for help for police officers. 1st Alliance helps first responders find people and organizations that can assist them in their time of need. They created a searchable database called 1st Help dedicated to finding emotional, financial, and spiritual assistance for first responders. Invisible Wounds Project is focused on bringing awareness and providing/connecting services to vets, first responders and their families that are struggling with PTSD, mental health issues, and suicide. The 227 Project has a team of mental health and peer support professionals who provide confidential online support to first responders and their family members upon request.
There are also multiple LEO approved therapists (ugh, I know I said therapists!) on the Backing the Blue Line resources page that are amazing and can help you. I will say finding a therapist that has expertise in trauma based therapy, PTSD and law enforcement understanding will make a huge difference in how well the therapy goes. Almost all of the officers I have talked to have mentioned that. And I have heard wonderfully amazing things about EMDR therapy as well. It works to heal the symptoms and mental tolls that result from disturbing things that happen in your life. Educate yourselves, if not for your own personal mental health but for someone you may know who is struggling.
Visit Backing the Blue Line’s resource page often, we are always adding new things on there to help you all. Reach out to me or Melissa as we are Backing the Blue Line’s Family Support Chairs and will help you with anything and everything you need. Fill out our request form for those leos you know are struggling.
And remember, be kind to each other. 💙
About the writer: When Jeni M. is not wrangling in her three kids, sneaking in some precious time with her husband or working on all that is Backing the Blue Line, you can find her in the midst of the woods. She is an avid outdoors woman - whether it is in a deer stand, hunting blind, out on the water or just taking a hike in the peace and tranquility of nature. She has a background in law enforcment and helping our MN law enforcement officers has become a huge passion of hers. She has been involved with BtBL for over 3 years now and loves working as a Family Support chair.