If a doctor told you that you had cancer, what is the first thing you think you would do? Tell family members? Contact an oncologist to outline your treatment regime? Would you let your friends, co-workers, and employer know about your health concerns? Now, let’s change the situation. You have depression. You have post-traumatic stress disorder. Now what do you do? Would you do the same as you would if you had received a cancer diagnosis? Or would you deny it? Hide it? Try to resolve it on your own? Unfortunately, for many, the stigma of “mental” illness and the associated perceived sense of weakness prevents individuals from seeking the same levels of social support and treatment as they would with a “physical” illness. The distinction made between “mental” and “physical” illness is misguided. The mind and the body are not separate entities. Brain scans of persons with posttraumatic stress disorder are different than those who do not have the disease. The same is true of other supposedly “mental” illnesses. My hope is that, in time, we will stop using that term as it is proven to be
Historically, police are not good at asking for help. This is especially true when it comes to seeking therapy. Even when police go to therapy, they sometimes have a hard time allowing help to be offered. I have worked with first responders who have continued their rescue behavior in session, trying to put my needs ahead of theirs by hesitating to share their darkest secrets out of fear that they would burden or traumatize me. It’s heartbreaking when they cannot accept my support and feel compelled to look after me instead of allowing their needs to be met for once. After all, that’s what therapy is about! I have also had officers who, on first meeting, have apologized for wearing their duty weapon to the session even though they were on duty, following up with me about an on-duty shooting. Police should never have to apologize for wearing their gun. It IS part of the uniform and they should not have to worry about alarming a mental health professional. (Whether they are a former police officer or not!)
Being a cop-turned-psychologist gives me a unique vantage point to understand both the policing and the counseling professions. I remember the comments made by my fellow officers about not ever wanting to have to see a shrink, not trusting the department shrink, and not wanting to be psychoanalyzed. Most officers’ first (and only) encounter with a shrink is at the psychological assessment in the hiring stage or following a critical police incident. So, it’s no wonder where all the “shrink” talk comes from. As a psychologist that has done the psychological assessments in the hiring process, I can say it’s a very different role and “climate” than the support role I play when I am doing counseling, debriefings, or training. I remember being nervous about having my own psychological evaluation when I was being hired. You don’t get feedback. Typically, you have to answer very personal questions and then watch the psych feverishly writing about your response. It doesn’t exactly give you a warm, fuzzy feeling for mental health folks. Fortunately, there’s another side to the mental health field, where support is the goal. I have seen the positive impact that counseling can have for those who are struggling. I have seen individuals who were at the brink of suicide transform their struggle into a life filled with purpose and contentment. This is why I do my job.