New Year’s Resolution: The Annual Wellness Check

This job takes its toll on our emotions, & getting an objective outside opinion is the best way to keep the balance

By Jeff Shannon  |   Dec 18, 2015
Balance is everything in police work. And yet the emotional tolls of this job can affect the officer profoundly. In this busy holiday season make time for yourself and your health. Photo Courtesy Georgetown (Texas) PD.

Question: How important do you think it is for officers to be emotionally healthy? And another: How important is it for the performance of their duties? How important is it for their personal and familial lives? Chances are you agree with me that emotional health is pretty important.

Now: How much time do we spend checking to make sure our mental health is in good order. I don’t mean your self-assessment, like, “I exercise regularly, I think I’m good.” You may, in fact, be good. But a fantastic New Year resolution would be to have an objective, knowledgeable third party talk to you about it.

The best place to look for an objective, knowledgeable third party is a psychotherapists’ office. For a number of years now, the influential Badge of Life organization has been advocating the annual well check for all officers for years.

The Value

We simply cannot continue believing that our mental health is unimportant to law enforcement. Not only is it important, it’s vital we make sure where on the right track with our emotional wellness. Because—let’s face it—a lot of us get off track.

One of the biggest challenges for getting law enforcement officers to visit the office of a mental health professional is giving up control. We often feel (consciously or not) that we must be in control of things. To visit a mental health professional is to cede a lot of that control to someone else. More than that, we become vulnerable when talking to a therapist about our personal issues.

But the benefits outweigh the risks on this. That’s my belief. So you go in there and let your guard down. You give up some control. What’s the worst that could happen? You’ll feel out of place and uncomfortable? Now, compare that to the benefits you could get by learning about yourself in a slightly deeper way. Or, think about the possible harm, built up over years, you’re causing yourself, your children, your spouse, and your family by not attending to your emotional wellness …

Law enforcement officers have higher rates of depression, PTSD, and suicide than the general population. There are some real pitfalls we can fall into if we’re not cautious. And it’s that proactive cautiousness that should drive us into the idea of an annual emotional wellness check with a therapist of our own choosing.

In your annual check, you could just talk about the previous year (what you can remember of it). Were you exposed to any traumatic incidents? If so, are you still working through it or does it feel completely resolved? Are you concerned about your alcohol consumption? Your high level of fatigue on the weekends? Your pent up anger and frustration? What a great place to get some feedback and tools for freeing yourself from these issues that are so common in our law enforcers.

Following are responses to some common questions and complaints.

I’m not doing that because it’s gonna get back to my department.

Legally your relationship with your therapist is like a Catholic’s relationship with his/her Priest. It’s confidential and the therapist cannot disclose any information to anyone about you. They can’t even say they know you. The therapist needs your written permission to disclose information about you. These disclosures are to specific people for specific things and generally wouldn’t come up in the annual wellness check.

How do I find a good therapist?

There is a wide variation in therapist styles. Some are warm and fuzzy, some are “just the facts.” Some therapists have experience working with first responders, which is ideal. It’s preferred to see someone who has a familiarity and comfortability with working with law enforcement.

Importantly, if a potential therapist doesn’t have this background don’t automatically reject them. I say this for two reasons. First, there still aren’t too many therapists that know much about our lives in law enforcement, so I don’t want you to make the excuse that you didn’t schedule your wellness check because there were no such therapists you could find.

The second reason is that if you’re only open to working with therapists with a ton of experience working with law enforcement, you miss all the many fantastic mental health professionals who don’t have that experience.

Here are a couple of sites I would recommend to begin your search: GoodTherapy.org and PsychologyToday.com.

I went to a therapist but I didn’t like her.

That’s fine. Keep shopping. I’ve heard people say they went to the first meeting and the therapist had incense burning and Birkenstocks on his feet! They then used that as an excuse to give up on the process. Remember: Letting go of control and being vulnerable is key. There are, sadly, many therapists who do and say some whacky things. To the extent we can we just avoid them. But we don’t give up on finding someone we can connect with (and, trust me, they’re out there).

Conclusion

So, you make an appointment with the therapist. Go in there and tell him or her that you’ve decided to get an annual mental health checkup to see how you’re doing. Minimally, all you need is one session. You may mutually agree with the therapist that more sessions would be good, but, again, that’s something you decide on. If not, then you just set yourself a reminder 12 months out to get your check up with the same person you feel comfortable with.

Law enforcement is one of the most psychologically toxic careers anywhere. It’s foolish to believe that dealing with what you deal with every day doesn’t take a toll on your mind and heart. I hope you decide to give yourself the gift of emotional wellness this year by taking the proactive and smart decision to get an annual wellness check.

Be safe and happy holidays!

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Jeff Shannon
Jeff Shannon worked in law enforcement for 14 years. He is a nationally recognized expert in the area of police stress. He is a licensed mental health professional with a private practice specializing in treating first responders. In California, he is a certified Master Instructor through the California Commission on Police Standards and Training (POST). Jeff consults and provides training to law enforcement agencies through his company, BlueResilience (www.blue-resilience.com).
Jeff Shannon

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