Monday, August 9, 2010

“The Body Keeps the Score”: An introduction to psychological trauma for cops.

Can you imagine being a police officer and having no real knowledge of or interest in how to use a hand gun? Can you imagine a colleague saying, ‘I’ll figure out how to deploy my firearm if or when the time comes’?

Either can I.

We better know how to use our firearms because our life or the life of another may depend on it. Now, let’s introduce a talking point from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. In On Combat he writes,

The stress of combat debilitates far more warriors than are killed in direct hostile action.

Hmm. By ‘stress’ Grossman here refers to cumulative stress, posttraumatic stress and critical incident stress, all of which I’ll define momentarily. For now let me ask, what do you know about these? If you’re like most cops the answer is ‘not much’. Either you’ve never given them much thought or you figured you’d learn about them if you got bit. Or, you’ve already been bit and you’ve learned all about one or more of these the hard way.

Traumatic stress is an occupational hazard for cops. You really need to get this. Moreover, traumatic stress in its various forms can be deadly. You wouldn’t wish the bad shit associated with trauma (co-morbidities) on your worst enemy.

Because trauma is located in the shadowy realm of human psychology, law enforcement has kept away from it. While this may sound unfairly harsh, police officers (who later become police executives) know about stuff we can put our teeth into, like how to clear a hard corner in a room search or how to safely approach the occupants of a vehicle during a car stop. We know all about the hazards associated with these because,

  1. We talk with each other about them.
  2. We consult tactical experts and utilize our own in-house experts.
  3. We regularly pose scenarios to ourselves and our partners...‘what if...?’
  4. We mentally attend to these potential hazards which gives us two extremely powerful tools for managing risk: prediction and control.

When we begin talking about psychological risk, cops start fidgeting in their seats. Why? Most police officers don’t know a ton about psychology so we feel vulnerable; never a good thing for cops. We want to avoid feeling vulnerable so we avoid the topic.

By avoiding (minimizing, de-valuing, ignoring) the impact psychological trauma has on individual officers, their families, the police agency and the community, we have unwittingly allowed our brothers and sisters in blue to suffer in silence. We need to stop doing this.

Okay, you don’t know much about trauma. You don’t feel comfortable talking about it. I don’t feel comfortable talking to my pre-teen son about safe sex and drugs, but I do it anyway. I balance the discomfort I feel on the one hand, against the potential destruction that may happen on the other. Fuck it, I guess I’m gonna feel a little awkward.

In this series of posts, I will attempt to get you to appreciate how important an understanding of police trauma is to you.

Some mental health problems are easy to diagnose and treat. Trauma isn’t one of them. In order to give you the best, most up-to-date and accurate information available on police trauma I’m going to break this down into bite sized morsels. Don’t ask me how many bite sized morsels there’s gonna be because I haven’t written them yet.

I hope to answer the following questions (among others):

Why does one person need to drink himself to sleep every night after a critical incident, while another sleeps like a baby?

What’s Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and how can I avoid getting it?

How does traumatic stress manifest in the body?

What does it do to the brain?

How does a traumatized cop impact the family?

What are the co-morbid conditions associated with untreated trauma?

How do you fix or treat traumatic stress?

Stand by.

Watch me

1 comment:

  1. I am really looking forward to what you hope to write about this topic. I saw my father, a C.O deal with PTSD after an excape. I watched the short term issue like him going days without sleep because he was looking for the guy, walking me and my sisters to school. And then the long term issues, like suddely my dad was a Jerk. I worry about that with my husband, a former C.O. now Road guy There is a lot of stress and he acts like its not really a big deal at all. I would rather we as a family not learn the lesson he will not see the hard way. Thank you for taking the time to look at the very real emmotional side of LE