By Colby Mills, Ph.D.
I'm a police psychologist and part of the team conducting the National Wellness Survey for Public Safety. It's completely anonymous and available to any public safety agency that is interested in first responder mental health. If you're a first responder, forward the link above to your agency leaders.
But first, I want to talk about why this matters — why it isn't just another survey clogging up your inbox.
For one thing, we're going to use the results to help people understand more about what it's like for you as a first responder.
Most people think it's the scenes that get to you. They know you face things they don't, and you run toward what they run from. They have some sense of what you witness and assume that your stress must come from those horrible scenes, because they can imagine how horrified they'd be in your boots. They don't always realize that you were prepared and trained for such situations. They also don't realize that just because you keep functioning well, that doesn't mean you're okay.
People forget that you also have the same stressors they do, like friction with your bosses and coworkers, worries about your kids and financial headaches. The public sees your experience as separate from theirs when, in reality, you live in the same towns, shop at the same stores, go to the same games.
And then on top of that, the scenes. Not necessarily the images or memories, although they do sometimes come knocking when it's quiet. But also the ways in which people treat themselves and each other, often for no good reason. The victims who didn't ask for, or deserve, the consequences that befell them. The things you've had to do or, on the flip side, the things you've been prevented from doing. The clinical term for it is “moral injury,” the invisible injury caused by exposure to things that should not be.
Things also feel more separate now, don't they? There's always some feeling of separation; your job is so different from most people's work, and first responders always feel a little removed from the people they protect. The pandemic literally separated all of us for a long time, but while your friends and loved ones could work from home, you had to put yourself at risk in a new way. Then events like George Floyd's death and the aftermath deepened the divide between “us” and “them,” maybe most severely for law enforcement, but for all of public safety. In some ways, it also divided “us” and “us,” as you might have started to wonder how your agency would react if you were in the spotlight.
Our team came together because we know how stress stacks up over time. Some of us are, or have been, first responders; others, like me, witness your pain behind closed doors. We've seen the pain play out in shock and horror when people die by suicide, and we've seen it in other ways as people quietly deteriorate during their careers and after they retire. It doesn't have to be like this. We came together because we have been watching good people struggle with the effects of stress and trauma for far too long, and we want to help.
The best approach starts with information. Yes, everybody has a general sense that you have a hard job, but in order for things to change, that picture has to be brought into sharp focus. In order to figure out better solutions, our society has to first understand problems in detail. To put it in operational terms, success depends on planning and planning depends on intelligence.
That's why we've put together the survey. We want you and your teammates to tell us how you're doing. Our group has experience surveying first responders, and we've used that experience to develop a set of questions about stress and the common ways that it can manifest itself.
Our survey isn't like most that you may have been asked to take. We ask you questions about difficult topics: trauma, drinking, depression. We ask if you've had thoughts about suicide and how close you've come to the edge. We ask if you've gotten help, if it worked and what the obstacles were. We ask about what you've had to do and see operationally, and how the effects of it have stacked up for you over time.
It will take courage to speak up, but your courage will pay off. The results will benefit first responders because the information gathered will be used for education and advocacy at the national level. The information will benefit your agency because we'll send agency leaders a summary report that will give them aggregate results while still protecting you as an individual. Agency leaders can use those facts to drive policy change, argue for funding supportive resources and even change laws, as with our previous survey in Virginia that helped lead to a PTSD presumption bill.
And we think all of this will, ultimately, help society. The people you serve need you to be at your best when they're at their worst; and keeping you at your best takes resources.
I also believe that taking the survey will help you. (Bear with me, I'm going into psychologist mode for a minute.) Particularly over the past year, you've had to absorb tremendous amounts of change, stress and added uncertainty, and you haven't had much time to unpack any of what you've been through. You've probably done what first responders usually do — shove it in a compartment and keep running to the next call, and then the next.
Sit down for a little while, take the survey, and use the time to reflect on what you've endured, and how you're doing right now. Maybe it will help you clean out some of those compartments. Maybe you'll decide to tap in some assistance from a trusted friend or a chaplain, or even (gasp!) a psychologist. But take a short break from being in “go” mode to just acknowledge that you have had to deal with a lot this past year, not to mention the rest of your life and career before that. You might even feel some validation that you're doing well. Whatever your experience is, you'll be helping yourself and countless other first responders.
You bear a lot for the people and communities you serve, and it comes at a cost. Help us count the cost. Maybe soon the people and communities you serve — and those of us working to support you — can help pay it back.
Colby Mills, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and police psychologist working with the Fairfax County Police Department. He is a member of IACP, the Major Cities Chiefs Psychological Services section, and Division 18 of the American Psychological Association. He and a handful of teammates are conducting the National Wellness Survey, a joint venture among the U.S. Marshal Service, Nova Southeastern University and the Fairfax County Police Department.
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