Police Psychology | “BRING A BUDDY”
By: Marla Friedman, Psy.D. PC
Executive Board-Badge of Life
For years I have been training First Responders on the importance of seeking and maintaining good mental health. As you can imagine I’ve come up against a lot of resistance. Fighting the stigma related to pursuing good mental health is an ongoing battle. I do believe my peers and I have made some positive inroads in this area. However there is still a lot of work to be done.
An interesting experience happened recently that made me think I may have found another technique that may make it easier for officers to come for their Mental Health Check-In (O’Hara, 2006) or for psychotherapy when indicated.
First let me say that I have had the fortune to work with outstanding law enforcement officers, firefighters, dispatchers, train engineers and accidental killers as well as specialized personnel including DEA and ATF agents with a wide range of problems who have found their way to my professional door. Usually a fellow officer or agent has encouraged them to come for a visit or their spouse or domestic partner has urged them to deal with issues that are interfering with their relationships at home.
Frequently we are dealing with the after effects of trauma or full-blown PTSD. I specialize in a technique called Prolonged Exposure, initially developed for the Military (Foa, Edna, 2008) to treat returning veterans who are struggling with severe symptoms including: depression, panic, intrusive thought about the traumatic incident, inability to sleep, nightmares when they do, suicidal thoughts, hyper-vigilance, substance abuse, avoidance, rage and dysfunction in interpersonal and work relationships.
The new twist is when an officer I was currently treating in psychotherapy identified a fellow officer who he felt was in need of help, but reluctant to take the plunge. He called and asked if he could accompany his peer to the first session, as he was willing but nervous about what might await him. His buddy had never even considered seeing a Police Psychologist. I have had spouses accompany one another to put their toe in the psychotherapeutic water, but not a work peer. I told him that would be fine with me and to let his buddy know that I looked forward to meeting with him or her. What could be easier or more efficient? I really liked the idea on so many levels.
What a great idea out of the trenches! It’s like Peer Support on steroids. Taking the next step and helping confront the novel situation of visiting a mental health professional by enlisting the help of a trusted buddy is an additional instrument in my “breaking the stigma” toolbox. While not my idea, it was born out of the strong
relationships developed within squads, departments and specialized groups of law enforcement professionals and other First Responders.
The advantages are many. First, it lets your buddy know that you have gone to therapy and survived, thrived and were able to remove the demons that were haunting you and now can return to life with the ability to feel the full range of human emotions, including happiness and joy. When a person is struggling with trauma the emotional landscape becomes blunted and limited to the negative emotions only.
Second, the buddy system works because it is private. No one needs to know that you are seeing a mental health professional unless you want to extend the gift to another buddy who may be suffering. By doing this you contribute to breaking the stigma, which is good for everyone. This is a choice you make. Since using this buddy system I have noticed that patients are willing to share their experiences and no longer feel it is taboo to get relief from the issues that are plaguing them.
Thirdly, You are not alone. Your buddy can stay with you through all your sessions, the first session or just the first 10 minutes of your session. You are the boss. As a psychologist I deal with individuals, couples and groups all the time. This is common practice for me. I am just extending it to work peers instead of just family members or group members with similar issues.
In reality, your mental health professional hopefully still sees their own therapist to stay on an even keel and remain healthy to do the kind of work we do. In fact if I know someone in the mental field who has not been to therapy or doesn’t refresh themselves with sessions, as needed I would be unlikely to refer to them. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. It takes work to remain healthy in this current stress filled climate.
Also, this is a voluntary endeavor and yields positive results with no downside. As I currently do a lot of training with officers who are becoming certified as FTOs, I explain to them that they are gold to me. They hold in their hands the lifeblood of the future face of law enforcement. They can discuss with probationers how they feel about a recent situation that may have had traumatic overtones instead of remaining stoic and modeling typical “just suck it up” behavior. Multiple deaths at a traffic accident, a suicide in a hotel room, the death of a child by force or natural causes are always difficult to see, yet officers are trained to keep their emotions in check which eventually leads to multiple emotional problems. By encouraging the officer in training to talk about and release his/her reactions to horrific scenes it helps them integrate confront and better handle daily events, instead of letting them pile up over a career until there is very little joy to be found in life.
Whether a new or well-experienced officer there is now the concept of the “Bring A Buddy” program that starts where peer support ends. Encourage your fellow officer to seek a Mental Health Check-In or psychotherapy to head off long-term problems in emotional functioning. If they are uncomfortable going to see a mental health professional, step up and offer to go with them. Long term or short term support is a step in the right direction. When you think of what all our of officer’s do for the citizens of the towns and cities they protect, especially in todays anti-law enforcement environment don’t we owe them an easier way to approach a mental health professional? So let all your officers you work with know that it is fine to “Bring A Buddy”
Blog Administrator: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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