A brief look at Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how it affects those who work in the field of law enforcement.
Post traumatic stress disorder has become a national buzz word as a result of our military involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan
theaters. The studies that have been done recently reveal PTSD is more common among the military personnel who are either reservists or National Guard. In fact, the rate of PTSD among returning reservists and National Guard is about three times as high as those in the regular, active military.
The reason for the dramatic difference appears to be easily answered by the fact that those military personnel who are active have a “built in” capability of debriefing their deployment experiences with their “battle buddies.” They have prepared with their buddies, deployed together, endured the stresses as one and, upon returning to the states, return to military life on their assigned base with those same buddies. Over the course of time these troops will actually debrief each other as they discuss their traumatic experiences “outside the wire.” The fact that they shared these experiences and have remained together following, they will ultimately unload with someone who they trust because they were side by side during the danger.
Reservists and National Guard do not have the “luxury” of being able to remain in day-to-day operations with their battle mates. Upon returning from deployment they are expected to go their separate ways and immediately embrace civilian life, returning to their homes and employment. With only a two day training session once per month, there is little contact with those who shared in the horrors of battle. The pains of the experience become stuffed into a dark recess of the brain and attempts are made to lock a mental door so they never get out. They attempt to move immediately from high life and death adrenaline experiences for the last 12 to 15 months to a sedate environment that tells them they are safe. But the survival patterns are ingrained and cannot be turned off like flipping a light switch. And there are always trigger points – driving under bridges, going through tunnels, traffic jams, crowds of people, single lanes through road construction, etc. With whom do they share their confusion, uncertainties, and the experiences that wake them up at night?
We are just beginning to understand the depth of the problem with PTSD in the military and remarkable strides have been made to assist those from the National Guard and our Reserves. We recognize they need appropriate ways to debrief and that families need to better understand the very life threatening situations they experienced first hand. Newer military reintegration plans are now being put into operation as this is written that should better assist our brave men and women who defend our nation.
But, what about local law enforcement persons? What is the impact of PTSD in their lives and how can we help them cope with the traumatic experiences they face in the line of duty? One of the things we learned through observing National Guard and Reserves was the problem of constantly switching from military to civilian and vice verse. Thins problem is not experienced by active duty troops in the same way. Our own son in the past two years and been through eleven switched between active military and having too return home and his regular employment only to be called into active status again. The constant shifting has taken a toll on his ability to cope with what is safe (civilian life) and what is dangerous (military deployment). The most difficult part is attempting to return to civilian existence as if he has not been deployed. Though we all understand it better, it’s still difficult for him and us as the roller coaster ride brings out unpredictable behavior as he seeks to adjust quickly.
If there is such a toll on the military, what is it like for those in law enforcement who have to shift each day from their chosen profession back to civilian status? My older son is a Sheriff’s Deputy who works as a detention officer. Each day as he dresses to leave for the jail, there is a marked change in his demeanor. As with military personnel, they have to put on the “military survival” mindset because one misstep in the detention center can result in serious injury or loss of life. When they arrive at the incarceration facility, every officer is in the “fight or flight” adrenaline mode of operation. When the officers greet each other with hand shakes and eye contact as they enter the workplace, they are reminded they are “battle buddies” and cannot, even for a moment, fail to care for each other should hostilities break out in the cells. Throughout the course of the day the adrenaline flows as they are on the “battle field” of law enforcement. And suddenly, as quickly as it began, it’s over.
The moment it’s over, the law enforcement officer is expected to immediately transition from the military battlefield mentality he/she has operated under throughout the day to that of husband, father, friend, etc. in civilian life. Everyone expects him/her to be able to flip the switch of personality and, as instantaneously as the light goes off, expect him/her to begin acting like a “real person” again. Those around him/her want him/her to exhibit the pastoral qualities of human relationships as if work had never existed. They fail to take into account the officers that were involved in a scuffle with an inmate, the officer who was severely beaten before his battle buddies could get to the cell, the contraband that was seized, the lock down that ensued, or the inmate who attempted a suicide and may have even succeeded. And, most of those around him/her don’t want to hear him/her debrief the sordid details of the war experience of today. They want him/her to be normal – to meets their needs – and he/she is expected to be someone he/she may not be able to be because of the experiences of the day. The problem is that law enforcement personnel, like the military, cannot move instantly from who they have to be on the job to the perfect family member who interacts lovingly and pastorally. They still have the things that have touched their reality inside and they have to have a way and time to debrief adequately before they can be what someone else needs or expects.
In addition, law enforcement personnel become realists. Often “diagnosed” as cynics, they are actually acutely aware of the dark side of people’s lives just as the military is aware of the dark side of those who seek to destroy them and their purposes. They understand life destructive behavior all too well and how anyone can become a “terrorist” of sorts if given the right moment. They are watchful of their surroundings, just like the military. They have to be because it can mean life or death. They see the possibility of evil that others cannot see. They become very discerning because the future may rest upon that very discernment. When they are in a department or grocery store, a mall, or any large gathering of people, they are watching everything going on around them to protect themselves and those they love. They can become overprotective but it’s not because they are trying to be controlling; it’s because they can see the potential of things before the particulars unfold.
What does this all mean? It means we’re asking people who are in law enforcement to be our definition “normal” when they cannot be. Like those in the military, “normal” leaves at the first deployment with combat possibilities. And, “normal” will never return. In light of that, how do we help those in law enforcement? The following are some suggestions I propose for those in relationship or about to be in relationship with a person in law enforcement.
·Allow them to debrief with you each day and be open to all they want to talk about. Though it may offend, scare or even cause you pain to hear, they need to have someone with whom they can share their experiences. Their battle buddies went home for the night and they can’t share it with them. Can it be you? It needs to be for the relationship to work. If you can do this as soon after he/she gets home as possible, he/she will return to the “civilian” side of their personality faster.
·Keep all sharing confident. This is absolutely vital because trust cannot be broken. This is between you and that person and no one else. If trust is broken, he/she will probably never share with you again and that communication barrier has critical implications for the future. If you need to talk about it with someone, share with your pastor or a counselor. They are sworn to confidentiality.
·Do not act or appear surprised by anything you hear. You will hear things you don’t want to hear but don’t show your distress. These are real things he/she has encountered and, even though it’s uncomfortable, we have to listen. In over thirty years of pastoral counseling I think I have heard it all but am still surprised!
·Understand he/she’s not a cynical person but a realist because he/she has to deal with this uncomfortable reality of darkness every day. In the long run it’s actually a form of protection for you and his/her children because he can see possible problems around him/her.
·Understand he/she is not trying to be controlling though it may appear to be that way. As with the military, they have learned that life and death depends upon being able to control all the outward circumstances around him/her. He/She is the same.
·Find a faith community for him/her that you can share together. He/She needs a trusting faith that can help offset the need to control the circumstances around them for protection. As his/her faith in God deepens, they will be less controlling in the “civilian” environment.
·Be there for them. They need you and your support more than you know because you actually hold a key to their mental and emotional health. If you can affirm your perpetual presence for him/her, it provides a higher level of security so he/she’s not worried about your relationship while at work. If he/she is worrying about the relationship while at work, his/her security in the “battlefield” environment is severely compromised.
Being a relationship with a law enforcement person is challenging but can be extremely fulfilling as you grow together be implementing the ideas mentioned above. Just don’t lose sight of the truths as to why they are they way they are. They are as “normal” as anyone else; they just need our understanding to help them be successful in law enforcement and in their civilian existence.