“What’s on Your Mind, Brother?”

Why law enforcement must redefine peer support

By Jeff Shannon  |   Aug 23, 2017

Law enforcement, like the military, doesn’t have a “suicide problem.” We have a suicide project. For every officer that takes his/her own life, there are thousands of us pushing patrol cars around wondering why we don’t floor it into a wall or off the road. We need some grassroots help with this. This is our project.

Recognizing this project, in the late 1960s the Los Angeles Police Department started one of the nation’s first peer support programs (PSP). Fifty-plus years later, PSPs have become a much-needed staple in police agencies across the country. Peer support is a key component to an overall Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) program as described by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. 

Ideally, cops should see a licensed mental health professional on a regular basis. Badge of Life (BadgeofLife.com) has been on the vanguard of this idea. We need an annual mental health check-up with a licensed professional every year. If you get your teeth cleaned twice a year, they say, why in the world wouldn’t you get your head checked out at least once?

We’re making headway getting LEOs to acknowledge that having a professional counselor on board is smart business. PSPs, on the other hand, acknowledge the reality that many officers don’t feel comfortable seeing a head shrinker. We are much more likely to share our struggles and suffering with another brother or sister in blue. Peer support is key, but seeing an objective outside counselor provides another angle on what’s going on.

PSPs work by identifying LEOs who want to be on the “team.” These officers receive special training in the areas of active listening, suicide assessment, accessing resources, and so forth. It’s always good to have a peer (or more) on the team, who has worked through an OIS to help others through that confusing and often painful process. We make sure our LEOs know who is on the team and how to get ahold of them.

We all need to push for getting our cops in to see a professional counselor on a regular basis. We need to produce robust PSPs to complete our suicide project. But we have another very powerful tool at our disposal to help our brothers and sisters through their darkest hours: each other.

When it comes right down to it, I don’t care if you’re a trained peer or not. You’re a beat partner. You’re a colleague. You’re a leader who knows how to step up and do the right thing. You don’t have to have all the answers or have some magical training. You simply need to care, and you need to be able to express authentic care and concern for a struggling LEO.

You work with officer Smith every day. Officer Smith may spend more time with you at work than he does at home with his family. You are going to know when something is odd, wrong, or off with officer Smith. Therefore, you are uniquely qualified to move our suicide project forward.

Ask: “What’s on your mind, brother/sister?”

We ask this when we know there’s something going on with our workmate. What we’ve been doing for too long is noticing, but not acting. Step One is about taking the action of getting in the business of our colleagues. Most LEOs are instinctually averse to getting into other’s business.

America culture comes out of a Protestant tradition. (And, moreover, when you look at the demographics of police, we trend toward white and male, and I think reflect this in our cultures.) It is antithetical to the WASP culture to be “intrusive” or get too personal with others. But if we want to get busy with our suicide project, we need to start pushing ourselves here. The best way to know one of our brothers or sisters in blue is in trouble is by intuition. We’ll know it in our gut. We’ll “feel” it. Enter grassroots intervention.

When your gut tells you there’s something off with Smith, we need to start pushing ourselves toward action. It might look something like the following.

YOU: [With attentiveness and presence.] Hey Brandon, how are you doin’ brother?

BRANDON: Good, how are you? [This is the standard LEO defense against looking or being perceived as a weak link.]

YOU: I’m doing well. You look like maybe you’re tired [Or “preoccupied” or “in a bad mood—whatever the case may be. This is an invitation for Brandon to open up. If he sees you are fully present in the moment and looking him in the eye, he is more likely to tell you about it.]

At this point, the interaction could go one of two ways. Brandon could persist with his defense, as in something like, “No, I’m good man.” If your gut tells you there’s something up with Brandon, you’re most probably right. The question is whether he’s going to tell you about it or not. This is his way of saying, “I’m not going there.”

This situation presents an opportunity for those of us growing up in the WASP culture to grow a little. We then say something along the lines of, “Just lookin’ out for your man. If you ever want to chat, I’m around, OK?” this doesn’t feel natural for many of us. But since we have a suicide project in front of us, and we’re all leaders, we’re willing to feel awkward for 10 seconds.

The other possibility is that Brandon is ready to talk and he sees you as someone who simply wants to listen. This is good. He doesn’t need you to fix his problem(s). He doesn’t need you to take over for him. He just needs someone to listen to him. That’s the magic. Listening.

In the rare event that Brandon tells you he wants to kill himself or someone else, your cop instincts will kick in and you’ll know what you need to do. You won’t leave his side until you make sure he’s safe. If he’s suicidal you’ll sit with him as he calls Safe Call Now at (206) 459-3020. You’ll ask him if you can call his wife and bring her in as a resource. You’ll ask him to call the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in your presence.

Most of all, you’ll tell Brandon that you care about him. And because you care about him, you want to make sure he’s safe. You’ll take positive actions toward making him safe. Often when people are in crisis they’re not thinking clearly. You’re the clear-thinking crutch Brandon needs right now. For you, it’s Pure Intention. You don’t have an agenda, you just simply want to protect your brother. When you act with Pure Intention you’re always on solid footing. Nothing to feel sheepish or embarrassed about.

Conclusion

What I’ve just described is a crisis situation. Most of the time Brandon will just need to offload the stress that he’s experiencing at home or financially or with his boss. Your simple act of merely listening to him (without needing to “fix” his problem) is all he needs, and he’ll be healthier for your service. Nine times out of ten you won’t be thanked or acknowledged for this service. You just store it and know you did the right thing.

Cops rarely get acknowledged for what we do right, so this should be familiar. You’ll go to sleep that night knowing that you made a difference in someone’s life. One of the things that makes us all heroes is that we do yeoman’s work with no regular attaboys. We don’t brag or boast that we talked Brandon off the ledge the other day. We just keep it in our heart and sleep well.

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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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