Sunday, March 28, 2010

Police Officer Wellness: An introduction

My sister married a New Yorker. For whatever reason, her husband has a bunch of NYPD friends, and many of them turned up at the wedding (even though it was in California). I’ll never forget watching these boys in action at the reception. It was long before I myself become an officer and it left quite an impression on me. The first thing I noticed was that the group was really LOUD. Okay, I know, it’s a New Yorker thing. Fine. I also noticed the sheer abandon with which they consumed beer. I mean, it was like the world was going to end in five hours and they wanted to go out partying. Of course, as a head shrinker I made mental notes such as, “well, these guys seem to be alcohol abusers.” Pretty perceptive, eh? It’s difficult to articulate why it seemed to be a particularly self-destructive way of getting drunk. And, by the way, it was rather obvious all these guys planned on getting good and shitty. Despite the superficially festive atmosphere, something about these cops left me feeling sorry for them.

One retired NYPD cop pulled me aside and relayed the gory details about how he’d been screwed by the department. Apparently, he tried to promote at one point in his career and, because of politics, he was denied. He was venomous about his career and obviously this had seeped deep into his personal life. Suffice it to say, these guys all had some serious hangovers, which probably wasn’t a big deal ‘cause they were probably going to do something similar the next day.

The NYPD officers at my sisters wedding were unwell. “Wellness,” of course, is just a word. I’ve found the best way to explain what it really means is through an analogy: a car. There are two primary ways we determine if we like a car, the way it performs and the way we feel driving it. Regarding the former, does the car handle well? Does it have a good radius, gas milage blah blah blah. Right? Applied to the concept of wellness, we ask questions like, do you get into a lot of verbal or physical altercations? Is there a lot of overt conflict in your life? Do you fight with your partner a lot? Are you the subject of disciplinary action at work? Is your IA file as thick as your general orders? The great thing about this measure of wellness is that it’s fairly objective. Unless you’re in DENIAL,which is not just a river in Egypt. If you have integrity and are capable of being honest with yourself, you should be able to figure out how well you are in this regard. I should say here that wellness is not a discrete category. It’s not either or. It’s a spectrum.

The second way of figuring out if you like a car is how you FEEL driving it. Do you like the interior? Is it an ergonomically happy place to be? Applied to wellness, the question is, how do you feel in your skin? Unlike performance, this is wholly subjective. And, again, in order to move in the direction of wellness, you need to be able to be honest with yourself. You don’t need to confess your sins to a priest or go to therapy about it, just be honest with yourself. Are you angry too much? Anxious, depressed, irritable, unhappy, unfulfilled? You get the point. If, in these honest moments, you determine it doesn’t feel so good being in this car, then you have an opportunity to work on your own personal wellness.


Wow. Thanks for asking. Remember the story at the beginning? That’s why. In California we have the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). This is the government agency charged with determining what cops are required to know about to be cops. There’s no POST requirement that we learn about wellness. I’m guessing there was very little, if anything, mentioned about wellness in your academy. “Stress management” is one part of wellness and that gets a bit of talk but it’s usually half-hearted.

In general, and at the risk of sounding cynical (and unwell), police agencies don’t ensure we are working on our own wellness because we are cogs in a wheel. We’re tools used by the state to carry out its mission. Wellness is left up to us as individuals. My personal and professional experience has shown that if you don’t pay attention to taking care of yourself, there’s a very good chance this career will permanently warp your mind. And not in a good way.

You can tell the veteran officers who have attended to their own wellness from those that have not. The overweight, angry, hard drinking, bitter, divorced, alone veterans either didn’t give a rats ass about wellness, or the importance of it was never taught to them. The state doesn’t care, ‘cause they sucked twenty plus years out of the cop. The only thing these folks look forward to is retirement, when they can FINALLY live. These same veterans, who haven’t embraced the concept of wellness count down the days to retirement. Unfortunately, they probably also don’t know that some frighteningly well done research has shown that police officers live a full nine years less than the general population. So, the cop that doesn’t take care of him or herself throughout that long police career finally retires in the hopes of starting a “happy” life, collects about five years of retirement money, does the guppy on the living room floor and unceremoniously dies.

I’m gonna pass on that and I invite you to do the same. Should you decide that this word “wellness” actually does mean something, we should talk about how one lives well. In upcoming blog entries I’ll cover some specific habits and attitudes associated with wellness. For now, if you remember what you read today, you’ll have about half of what wellness involves: an awareness that it’s something to pay attention to.

L’ Chaim. (“to life”)

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