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Handling too many critical incidents can lead to trouble

I received a heartfelt letter from a concerned police officer’s wife. She was experiencing her what, for want of a better term, could be called spouse’s police stress. Her husband had policed far more than his share of critical incidents, including accidents where numerous children were killed. He was withdrawing from her and questioning his belief in God. Why, in essence, he was asking, did horrible things happen to good people while bad people seemingly got away with murder? This is an important aspect of police stress.

I answered her as follows.

You are not alone. Your letter represents the feelings thousands of police and correction officer wives (Fire, EMS and ER personnel included). Officers, to varying degrees, can be in denial as to the cumulative effects of job trauma on themselves and their families. I am not referring to burnout or job stress. That can be bad enough. This is worse. From the severity of the symptoms you describe, your husband may have a more serious problem. He may have a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The more dramatic forms of PTSD are usually caused by one life threatening or emotionally wrenching incident (the violent death of a partner, the near death of oneself). But there’s an insidious sub-clinical form of PTSD that I have seen many times caused by repeatedly being exposed to senseless death and violence, and by being emersed in the nether world of crime and poverty day after day, year after year. This is a similar condition to what many combat vets brought back from Vietnam. It is more common among police and correction officers than many people realize.

I can’t say for sure whether your husband suffers from PTSD, but the warning signs are there: some of the symptoms are denial of the problem, emotional numbing, being preoccuppied with the job off duty, feeling isolated from loved ones and feeling guilty that he couldn’t have done something to prevent the tragedies he had to deal with. Other symptoms your husband may have are:

disturbing repetious dreams, nightmares, recurrent mental images of the incidents (intrusive thoughts), irritability, anxiety, depression, insomnia, loss of interest in sex, and a host of physical problems like headaches, backaches, rashes and stomach problems.

The situation you describe in your letter does not mean your marriage is on the rocks. In fact your husband may be unwilling to share his feelings with you out of a desire not to burden you with the horrors he has witnessed. In his love for you he may feel that it is bad enough he has to live with the vivid images of tragic death. Why should he cause you distress by sharing them with you? You need to convince him that you want him to tell you about these incidents, that you can take it and that, in fact no matter how graphically he describes an incident to you, your own mental pictures are still second hand and not nearly as compelling as the memories he experiences.

Your husband may know he needs help, but like so many police and correction officers, he is reluctant to admit it because he values self-reliance so much and sees asking for help as a sign of weakness. Ture strength lies in admitting when one’s own efforts to change aren’t working and help is needed. Keeping feelings bottled up oten seems easier and less complicated than disclosing them and asking for help.

Ideally, officers should talk about a trauma or critical incident (as they’re now called) as soon afterwards as possible. Some department have critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) teams to help with this, but even when available it is up to the chief or commanding officer to call them in. Some chiefs don’t want to admit that their officers need help. In fact, I’ve heard such officers referred to as “cry babies” more than once. Needless to say, this attitude is very destructive.

I once had a police officer friend of mine flag me down on the road from his cruiser. He was a paramedic patrol officer, one of the toughest and bravest men I know. He had just unsuccessfully tried to save two children’s lives in a car accident. His uniform was drenched in blood.

He tearfully told me of his futile efforts to save them, and his guilt over his “failure” to do so. He ended up with tears freely flowing, and my eyes welled up as too.

There we were, two grown men crying in a marked police cruiser in broad daylight on a bridge over a major expressway. I can’t imagine what drivers-by thought. Let me tell you, this man was no cry baby.

Fortunately, very few officers have had as many critical incidents occur on their shift as your husband. A rare few officers may go years without policing a fatal accident. It’s the luck of the draw. Most officers have several and some an outlandish number. It may seem that the officers on the oposite end of the curve from your husband lead charmed lives; but their good fortune is just that, pure random luck. Your husband needs to understand that though his faith has been shaken, his “black cloud” has nothing to do with who he is as a person.


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