I Sat Where They Sat

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It wasn’t that long ago . . . the first time I felt it.  July 23, 2010.

I was busily preparing breakfast for my wife and worrying about being able to get in and out of the shower quickly enough to make it to work on time.  Breakfast preparation in those days was pretty intense, and the order was the same every day.  Two eggs – not over medium because the yokes were too runny, and not over hard because she still had to be able to dunk her toast.  For someone who doesn’t even eat eggs, I struggled with getting it right, and some days I would go through 5 or 6 eggs just to get 2 that she would eat!  But that morning, breakfast preparation was interrupted by a phone call that caused me to simply turn off the stove and leave the uncooked eggs in the pan, because I now had a more important mission.  I had to go upstairs and tell my wife that her baby boy had been shot and killed early that morning in the line of duty.

I was ultimately able to pull myself together well enough to meet up with my oldest son . . . also a police officer . . . and we made our way to the hospital to spend a few minutes with Matt before his body would be escorted to the medical examiner’s office.  We were greeted by a wall of police officers from several jurisdictions, and escorted into a tiny waiting room where some of Matt’s fellow officers were standing, some were sitting, but all were fidgeting with nervous anxiety.  There was coffee, and I hadn’t yet had a cup that morning, but I didn’t want any.  I patiently mumbled my response to a few officers and hospital workers whose only words were, “I’m sorry for your loss.”  I sat down, and a few other officers settled in the room.  I especially noticed the detective diagonally across the room with 2 large paper bags on the floor next to his chair.  I instinctively knew what was in the bags, and why he had to guard them so carefully.

And there we sat for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably not more than 4 or 5 minutes.  And that’s when I began to feel it.  Whether it is an instinct, a compulsion, or simply a calling, I felt like I was there to minister to the officers in the room as much as they were there to minister to me and Mike.  I have been an ordained minister since 1976, but I had never felt more “called” to the ministry than I did that morning.  After a few more minutes in the waiting room, we were finally able to go into the treatment room and say goodbye to Matt.  As we were leaving the room, a lieutenant said to me, “Mr. Edwards, I just want you to know that we will do everything we can to help your family through this.”  And instantly I knew how I had to respond: “You all are Matt’s family, too, and I want to do what I can to help you all through this.  Let’s just get through it together.”

I think for the very first time in my ministry, I actually understood the conversation that had taken place several centuries before between God and the prophet Ezekiel.  The people of God were suffering in exile, and God was calling Ezekiel to go minister to them.  But God didn’t immediately tell Ezekiel what he should say . . . He instructed him to simply go and observe the plight of his countrymen.  Don’t ask any questions.  Don’t preach any sermons.  Just sit there and watch.  And so Ezekiel describes in his narrative how he went and simply stayed among the people, and summed up his week-long experience with these words: “I sat where they sat.”  Ezekiel was moved by that experience.  His capacity to minister to them was built upon a foundation of having lived that experience himself.  His compassion for them was not the sympathy of an outsider, but the empathy of one who had been immersed with them in their sufferings.

The morning of July 23, 2010, I sat where they sat.  I don’t know how else to explain it.  But I can tell you that it is what drives me to do what I do as a police chaplain at the agency where my son served, and as a team member at Humanizing the Badge.  Every time there is a line of duty death, my personal instinct is to shrink away and selfishly care for my own freshly-opened emotional and spiritual wounds.  But then I remember, “I sat where they sat.”  There are people suffering who need to be ministered to, and no one can do it with more sincerity and empathy than one who has sat where they now sit.  There are family members whose heart may only be touched by a loving word from someone who has been there.  There are young officers who may be attending their first funeral who need to learn how to put themselves in the shoes of the suffering.

I would be dishonest if I were to deny that whenever Humanizing the Badge posts about a line of duty death, my personal desire is to shut down the computer, retreat from the pain, and protect myself.  But I can’t, because I sat where they sat.  Whenever there is a line of duty death that happens close by, I would rather do anything besides put on my Class As and accompany a group of officers, stand in formation, hold a salute, and listen to one more final radio call.  But I have to go, because I sat where they sat.  I will continue to fight that feeling, and to embrace that feeling, because I sat where they sat.

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How is Your Stress Fitness?

The buildup of chronic stress in the lives of first responders can exact a very heavy toll – mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. These 12 tips can offer some strategies to improve your stress fitness and help make you more resistant to the effects of stress, and more resilient when a major stressful event occurs. Here you go:

  1. Exercise regularly. Stay active, and follow a regular exercise program each week. Your physical fitness will go a long way toward building up your stress fitness as well.
  2. Eat right. Americans are beset by “the diseases of civilization” – heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Our diet has a lot to do with that, and if you eat balanced, healthy meals, you are setting yourself up to be more resistant to stress.
  3. Avoid smoking. About 16-17% of first responders smoke cigarettes. The physical effects of smoking on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems make it much harder to combat the effects of stress on those same systems. If you smoke, seek help to quit.
  4. Avoid excessive alcohol and caffeine. Enjoying an adult beverage in moderation and having a limited number of caffeinated beverages a day may not be harmful, but excessive consumption of either will lessen your resistance to stress.
  5. Relax. Take regular breaks during the day, and take regular days off to relax. The old “all work and no play” adage really is true. Learn and practice some techniques to initiate the body’s natural relaxation response.
  6. Let go of the past. People often carry hurts from the past along with them. Instead, let go of those things and set your mind on the promise of the future.
  7. Have faith. Our research shows that individuals who actively practice some type of faith are significantly less likely to suffer from the effects of stress. Find and engage in a spiritual practice that helps bring you a sense of peace.
  8. Set goals. Whether it is short-term or long-term goals, being future-oriented makes a difference when it comes to responding to the effects of stress.
  9. Express yourself appropriately. Learn positive ways to express your feelings. Stress often causes us to behave in ways that hurt others, so expressing ourselves appropriately is key to handling difficult situations and people.
  10. Strengthen your primary relationship. Whether it is a spouse or other partner, you should place a high value on that relationship and always take steps to keep improving it.
  11. Find purpose. Working as a first responder is hard, but you sought out that work because you believed there was a great purpose behind it. If you have lost it, focus on finding it again.
  12. Network. Make sure you are connected to a close network of family and friends who will support you emotionally and love you unconditionally.

If you are struggling under the unique pressures of the job, and just need someone to chat with, please reach out by sending a message to www.facebook.com/humanizethebadge or email me at david@humanizingthebadge.com.  You don’t have to walk a difficult path alone . . . and we are here for family members of first responders, too!

Helping Someone Suffering from Stress

I know many of our followers are police officers, but many of you are not – you are family members or friends of officers, or you just simply want to be involved in an organization that engages in support for law enforcement.  This message is for any of you who are wondering what you might be able to do to help someone who is suffering from stress – whether that means acute stress from a particularly traumatic incident, or the effects of chronic stress that have built up over time as a result of multiple exposures to traumatic incidents.

I’m going to share some thoughts with you today about how to provide the right kind of social support.  It is not uncommon for people suffering from stress to withdraw from friends and family.  You can respect those boundaries, of course, but if you make it known that you’re still there and that you still care, that can help your friend or loved one overcome feelings of helplessness, grief, or despair.  Face-to-face support is one of the most important factors in recovery from stress.

So how do you provide that support?  Knowing what to do and say is not always easy.  So here are some quick suggestions:

Don’t pressure the person into talking.  It can be very difficult for some people to talk about traumatic experiences, and in some cases it may even make things worse.  So let them know that you’re willing to listen when they’re ready to talk, or that you’re willing to just hang out even when they don’t feel like talking.

Do “normal” things with the person.  It is perfectly okay to suggest an activity that has nothing to do with the traumatic experience or chronic stress.  Do enjoyable things together, go to breakfast or lunch, take a walk together, visit a museum or some other local attraction . . . just spending time together aids the healing process.

Let that person take the lead.  Instead of feeling like you have to make all the suggestions and make it seem like you are always telling that person what he or she should do, take a cue from that person as to how you can best provide support and companionship.  Most people instinctively know what makes them feel calm and safe, and that is your most important goal.

Manage your own stress.  The more calm, relaxed, and focused you are, the better you’ll be able to help someone else.  Make sure you are getting plenty of rest, eating right, and engaging in at least some moderate exercise on a regular basis in order to stay more mentally healthy yourself.  And you may even need to take a break from caregiving once in a while to protect yourself emotionally.  There’s no need to feel guilty about that.  It’s like putting your own mask first on an airplane before you try to help someone else.

Be patient.  Recovery from stress is a process that takes time and often involves some setbacks.  The important thing is to stay positive and maintain support for your friend or loved one.  Slow and steady wins the race.  The running may get difficult, but keep your focus on the finish line and keep going.

Finally, educate yourself about the symptoms and warning signs of stress.  Most law enforcement officers are pretty resilient, but many times there will be one particular traumatic event that may impact them in a significant way.  For others, it may not even be a traumatic event, but something seemingly much less significant, that may push them over the proverbial edge.  In these first two cases, those individuals may be suffering from what are called acute stress disorder or adjustment disorder.  Based on averages from studies done by the federal government and others, about 12 percent of law enforcement officers may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If you’d like to ask any questions, I would encourage you to email me at david@humanizingthebadge.com.  And if our mental health and peer support team can help you in any way, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us by sending a private message on our Facebook page (facebook.com/humanizethebadge).  We will respond to you as quickly as we can.  God bless you, and stay safe.

What doesn’t kill you . . . is still killing you.

You’ve heard the old expression, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” right? And if that fills your head with the music from the Kelly Clarkson song, I’m sorry. As an officer, you may have told yourself that because you survived a close call on a difficult arrest you’re stronger, or that because you went home and the bad guy didn’t after an OIS you’re stronger, or because you haven’t buckled under the pressure of the job like others have you must be stronger. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a nice sentiment, but it’s not altogether true. It’s still killing you . . . just more slowly.

Based on longstanding research, we already know that people under stress tend to consume too much caffeine, have problems with alcohol, have poor spending habits, don’t sleep well, and eat an unhealthy diet. This has resulted in what have been termed the “diseases of civilization” like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Chronic stress has been linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.

It’s the suicide link that concerns me, and should concern everyone in law enforcement. Research shows that people diagnosed with stress response syndrome (often the result of chronic stress) were 19 times more likely to complete a suicide than individuals without that previous diagnosis. For the past 5 years, an average of 10 active police officers each month have died by their own hand, and that can likely be attributed to the effects of chronic stress or some trigger event that has resulted in those officers suffering from stress response syndrome.

Where can help be found? According to the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, studies show that first responders are often resistant to seeking mental health treatment, and our own research at Humanizing the Badge reveals that the greatest barrier to individuals reaching out for help is the stigma associated with the need to talk to someone about what they’re experiencing. This is where effective peer support programs come in. Peer support has emerged as the virtual “standard of care” for first responders, and has proven to have a greater rate of compliance and fewer incidences of withdrawal from care as compared to traditional mental health approaches.

Humanizing the Badge’s innovative #CallForBackup Campaign for Suicide Awareness and Prevention is designed to teach first responders how to help themselves, and how to help each other. The goal is to teach people the skills necessary, in an environment of trust and mutual support, to help each other through the daily struggles of the job, prevent the tremendous buildup of chronic stress, but to know when a referral is necessary in the best interests of the health of their team member.

If you’d like more information about this training program, or if you are struggling and just need to check in with someone, please email David@humanizingthebadge.com or send a message to our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/humanizethebadge.

“I know I have PTSD!”

Oh, really?  I like hearing that from police officers about as much as police officers like to hear someone say, “I know my rights!” on a traffic stop.  And just like you may be tempted to ask, “And exactly which law school did you graduate from?”, I am likely to wonder where you obtained your medical or psychological degree.  The difference between your frustration and mine, though, is that your self-diagnosis could actually cost you your career, or your life.

The good news is that you are not as likely to have PTSD as you may think.  The bad news is that you may be suffering from a condition that is much more insidious and common than PTSD.  Want to hear more?

Even though I may use a big word or two, I don’t really want to be too “clinical” in this brief article, so let’s just get to the point – every police officer experiences and/or sees trauma regularly.  Every police officer, at some point, will experience post-traumatic stress.  At any given moment, though, only about 12% of those experiencing stress symptoms actually meet the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD.  In other words, you are 8 times more likely NOT to have PTSD even when you are experiencing signs of post-traumatic stress.

There are plenty of signs to look for when it comes to symptoms of stress:

  • Cognitive: poor attention, poor concentration, poor memory
  • Emotion: fear, guilt, anger, anxiety, depression
  • Physical: aches and pains, fatigue, gastrointestinal issues
  • Behavioral: social withdrawal, strained relationships, disruptive behavior
  • Spiritual: questioning beliefs, anger at God, cessation of spiritual activities

This is certainly not an all-inclusive list, but most of these things are pretty common and quite often have a direct connection to the effects of stress, whether as a result of a particular trigger event or even as a result of the buildup of chronic stress.

If the symptoms you’re experiencing are not an indicator of PTSD, then what could they possibly be?  Simply put, a whole bunch of different things!  For example, if you’ve recently experienced some type of trigger event that became the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back,” you could have what is known as Acute Stress Disorder.  The bad news is that the symptoms can be very intense.  The good news is that they usually only last 2 to 4 weeks and then you are better.

The most likely culprit is what is called Stress Response Syndrome (it used to be called Adjustment Disorder).  This is a stress-related malady in which symptoms appear gradually as a result of chronic stress, or more suddenly a few weeks to a few months after some type of trigger event.  For this one, I’ll give you the bad news first . . . because there really isn’t much good news to give.  Chronic stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.

It’s the suicide link that concerns me, and should concern everyone in law enforcement.  Research shows that people suffering from stress response syndrome were 19 times more likely to complete a suicide than individuals without that previous diagnosis.  For the past 5 years, an average of 10 active police officers each month have died by their own hand, and that can likely be attributed to the effects of chronic stress or some trigger event that has resulted in those officers suffering from stress response syndrome.

Humanizing the Badge® wants to encourage you to reach out if you are experiencing any of the stress-related symptoms mentioned in this article.  We can talk about it, and we can offer guidance to help you stay healthy throughout your career.  Just reach out to us by message on our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/humanizethebadge) or by calling (252) 39-HUMAN and leaving us a message.  And, of course, if you are in crisis right now and need immediate help, please call a trusted family member or friend to be with you, and then call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

What Would Jesus Do in Orlando

Do you remember a few years ago when the popular catch phrase for Christians was “What would Jesus do?” After having several conversations today with folks about the Orlando shooting and its association with both Islamic terrorism and especially the LGBT lifestyle, I’m no expert, but based on what Jesus DID during his life, I think I have a pretty good idea about what He would do . . .

First, let me say this: As a believer in the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus Himself, I do believe that any sexual lifestyle outside the relationship of one man married to one woman is sinful. But let me also say this: I thank God that Jesus was a friend of sinners!! And one more thing: Jesus was more frustrated with the so-called “righteous” of His day than anything else during his ministry.

13445426_10153729133818437_1340317941861147346_nSo . . . what would Jesus be doing if He were in Orlando today. He would be at the hospital comforting the families and friends of those whose lives were lost today. He would be going from room to room to remind the living of His love for them. He would be telling the “righteous” zealots who think our fellow humans deserved to die this way because of their lifestyle that if they couldn’t think of anything kind to say at the moment they should simply keep their mouths shut. He would be going to the police stations, the fire stations, and the ambulance companies and congratulating them for their heroism. He would be hanging out in the doctor’s lounge and visiting with the nurses who are trying to catch a break in the cafeteria to thank them for their dedication and seemingly tireless ability to help the next person when all they’ve been doing for hours is seeing the next person.

Yes, if Jesus were in Orlando today, I think that’s what He would be doing. And if Jesus is in YOU, and YOU are in Orlando today, then I think that’s what you should be doing, too.

What we see vs. what we don’t see . . .

I woke up this morning and checked my phone like I always do, looking to see if anything important had happened while I slept.  I saw that there was a series of terrorist attacks in Belgium, and that was shocking, of course.  I saw that I received a lot of “junk” emails during the night, which is not unusual at all, and quite annoying as well.  But then I checked the messages on the social media pages I monitor related to law enforcement support, and was confronted with the most disturbing of messages, and one that I see all too often any more – that another police officer had chosen to end his life by suicide.  The message reads, in part:

Please keep my hometown and [redacted] police department in your prayers.  We just lost a 15 year Sergeant with a wife and three kids at home to suicide. [The department] hasn’t made a public post as to how they died so it’s why I’m messaging you. I’m just kinda shocked because my hometown police never really experiences things like this. I just wish I could’ve helped in some way. Too close to home.

Yes, it’s way too close to home when an officer suicide happens, especially among those that are part of his or her law enforcement family.  By the “official” numbers, there are nearly as many deaths by suicide among active officers each year as there are line-of-duty deaths.  It’s hard to know whether those numbers are accurate, though, because the news media are often limited as to what they can report, and the departments are reluctant to talk about a suicide happening among their ranks because it may hurt the reputation of the department.  I am aware of police agencies that will not allow an officer who has died by suicide to be buried in his or her uniform because of the stigma of associating that manner of death with the police agency.

Police Suicide SamllWe see the death by suicide, but we don’t always see the underlying factors that lead to it.  I’ve come to call incidents of officer suicide “the other line of duty death.”  It’s the one that is not discussed – but all too often the effects of the job are what may lead an officer to believe that suicide is the only logical way to escape the pain.

 

 

Police officers are impacted by:

  • Critical incident stress – reactions to traumatic incidents they are involved in that have a tendency to overwhelm their normal coping mechanisms.  Unchecked, the lack of ability to cope well manifests itself in the symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
  • Chronic stress – the cumulative effects of both critical incident stress as well as just the so-called “normal” stressors associated with police work.  Officers tend to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms over the years that often lead to:
  • Stress-related illnesses – heart disease, high blood pressure, intestinal disorders, substance abuse, insomnia, and many other illnesses that are directly attributable to unresolved issues related to stress and the unhealthy ways in which the individual has tried to cope.
  • Anxiety and depression – There is a huge stigma associated with police officers seeking mental health assistance.  Fearing they will be declared unfit for duty, their symptoms grow worse until they believe there is no hope remaining.  According to the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, approximately 90% of individuals who die by suicide have untreated mental illness, and individuals with serious mental illness die by suicide at rates 6 to 12 times higher than the general population.

If you are an officer who needs help to cope with issues in your life and career, or if you are a family member or friend of an officer who wants to know what you can do to help, I want you to know that free, confidential stress coaching is available to you if you will send a private message to any of the following:

I can only echo the words of an article I recently read:  “If you are an officer who is hurting and contemplating suicide, reach out now.  There are many people who really do care about you, who really do want to help you, who don’t want to attend your funeral” (officer.com).

PLEASE NOTE:  If you are in crisis now, and need someone to talk to immediately, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).  They provide confidential assistance and are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year-round.