Webinar presenter Dr. Grant McDougall answered a number of your questions after his presentation, Cumulative Trauma: The Covert Enemy of First Responders. Here are just a few of his responses.
Audience Question: Dr. McDougall, what do you foresee to be the long term effects of COVID-19 both with cumulative trauma, substance abuse, and negative behavioral addictions?
Dr. Grant McDougall: Boy, that is a great question. I wish I could give you one simple answer, but I cannot. I think that this thing is evolving. I think a lot of it depends on where you are in the country because I travel so much when I’m seeing the different sections of the country are responding and reacting differently to this pandemic. My concerns have – I have many of them quite frankly. I’m really concerned about social isolation and distancing ourselves from others. One of the things I think is most important, my first responders is the camaraderie and support we get from each other in this field. I think as we withdraw or we draw away from individuals both physically and psychologically, I think we need to be very careful of that. I think that it also heightens our sense of vulnerability, and as I mentioned in the webinar, law enforcement, in general, does not do, vulnerability very well. I know that I’ve had three 20 something young men living at my house since COVID came out. So, my wife has four grown men living with her right now and there are days where she is homicidal. She’s ready to strangle all of us. I love all four. Three are my children. One is my nephew. I love all of them with all my heart, but it gets stressful. It’s very stressful. And then, I go out into the public to the grocery store, or whatever, and my stress sometimes only increases. So, I think, as this COVID situation evolves, I think what we have to do is to monitor the overall stress level. how well are we taking care of ourselves? And make a conscious effort to do things that replenish our resilience. I think, with the COVID thing, what we are going to find is it is taking sometimes more of us from an emotional standpoint that we can afford to give. So, I think about emotions as sort of a bank account. There are things that withdraw from that bank account there, things that deposit into that account. You gotta do behaviors that deposit into that bank account. I try every single day to get outside and get into nature even if it’s for five minutes. I try every single day to do something that helps me feel a little bit better. That’s a long term goal that you can do in very small steps and in very small ways but I think a lot of this is evolving and is contingent on where you live in the country.
Audience Question: How do I live with and help a husband, who has a long term PTSD because of law enforcement officer trauma?
Dr. Grant McDougall: Hey, Jodi, and thanks for the question, and thanks so much for being supportive of your husband. That is a tough situation. Understand that it’s treatable. There’s a lot of debate out there as to whether PTSD is curable or not and we don’t have time for that debate but what I can tell you is PTSD is very treatable. So, the first thing I would say is to focus on treatment for your husband. There is a treatment called EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprogramming. Look that up. EMDR. There is a lot of positive results. Again, It’s not a fix-all cure-all. It doesn’t, it doesn’t fix every situation or every diagnosis with PTSD, but I’ve worked a lot with military and law enforcement that have had that diagnosis. And in general, they show a very good response to that. Educate yourself on the diagnosis and understand that there’s a lot of resources out there. You’re welcome to e-mail me later, and I can help you connect some of those that are designed to help family members and spouses of PTSD. The other thing to do is to step outside the identity of law enforcement. One of the hardest things for law enforcement officers to do is to stop being a cop. I’m guilty of it myself. I go out to dinner with my family, and my kids catch me surveying the crowd. I watch who walks in the door. I have a very hard time sitting in a restaurant unless my back is against the wall and I can see the exit and entry points and I’m not a sworn law enforcement officer. So, turning the cop all for me at difficult, and I’m not even a cop. It’s an identity that’s very hard to drop sometimes and a lot of times, individuals with PTSD have an exponentially more difficult time turning that off. It takes a conscious effort to do so. But in short, answer what I would do, Jodi, is focused on treatment options and treatment protocol that might be most successful for you and your husband. The other thing I would do is consider some form of joint therapy with both of you. Let me be very clear. I don’t think counseling is for everybody. I do not believe it fixes every problem and I’m not one of those people that thinks my profession is the greatest thing in the world. But I do believe in situations like this. Support is absolutely critical. So, I would encourage you to consider joint counseling with both you and your husband.
Audience Question: Do you think the perception that police chiefs and command staff might be making decisions about an officer’s actions based on politics add to the stress that an officer goes through? And, if yes, how would you recommend chiefs and command staff approach these kinds of situations?
Dr. Grant McDougall: Oh, boy. That’s a very tough question. I’m not really sure how to answer that one row at the top of my head. What I can tell you is that, in many situations, politics does matter and that’s not a popular response but I’m not a very politically correct person so I will tell you. I hear officers come into my office sometimes, and they are griping and moaning about the fact that their leadership, be it a police chief or a sheriff, “Hh, that person’s a politician”. And you know how much they would rather have a lawman leading their agency and one of the responses that I often give is we’ll, maybe that person is a politician, but good luck trying to get a lawman elected. I think asking a police chief or a sheriff, or anybody in command staff to have a political lack of awareness is probably unrealistic. What we would hope is that politics don’t drive decisions when it comes to governing their law enforcement officers. What I suggest for command staff is that you’d be crystal clear about what your expectations are of your officers and be crystal clear, not just about how you’re willing and going to support your officers, but, how you won’t support them, where you support may waiver. I think they need to hear that, too. Excuse my language, but my experiences in most law enforcement, I have a pretty good bullshit leader and if you get up there and tell them what you think they want to hear, it’s not going to go over well. Be honest, be upfront with them. I think I mentioned I’m writing an article for National Publication Sheriff Deputy Magazine coming up here relatively soon, I believe, it will be published relatively soon. I addressed this in that article what law enforcement command staff needs to do is to not only speak privately i.e., amongst the agency members about what their expectations are but also as best they can show their support of their law enforcement officers publicly. Let them know they’re behind them and do it in the media, do it in the press, do it during conferences or press releases. Let their officers know the boundaries of their support. Again, I don’t think most officers and at least that I’ve come across expect command staff to support them if they made a terrible mistake if they have broken a law if they’ve made an egregious error but I do believe that they want to understand and know the boundaries of that command staff or support and be upfront with them about that. I hope that answered your question, Frank.
Audience Question: You have mentioned several studies regarding law enforcement and first responder roles. However, the latest criminal justice and sentencing reform in Indiana, probation, and parole officers have been given a large shove into a first responder role. Does your research include these positions? And what are some of the results? What is the impact for probation and parole officers on these kinds of traumatic events that they are increasingly being subjected to?
Dr. Grant McDougall: That is a phenomenal question, and the answer, in the short, is no. The majority of my research does not include that segment of law enforcement personnel and I think that’s going to change. I think what we’re seeing is in my area of the country, we’re starting to look at code enforcement officers, becoming first responders. We’re looking at a lot of different professions that historically have not been considered first responders being launched or shoved into that role. So, I think we need research to create the data to show us what that impact is. My feeling or my suspicion is that, whether it is a Deputy Sheriff, a police officer, a parole officer, or a probation officer, I think that you’re going to see some of the same types of reactions and the same type of effect in these critical incidents, as far as causing cumulative trauma. And that’s why I believe we need to do better with regards to training these individuals on what to do. So, if I’m going in to train a police officer, sheriff’s deputy, I’m not so sure that my training is going to vary all that much differently if I’m training parole or probation officer, I think a lot of my training is going to stay the same. Again, I think they’re going to be subjected to some of the same things that these other law enforcement officers that have historically served as first responders are subjected to. There may be data out there. I am not aware of any kind of recent longitudinal studies or in-depth studies about parole or probation officers serving as first responders.
Audience Question: But it definitely sounds like, as agencies start taking on, that kind of role increasingly, they need to be thinking about the mental health and well-being of their personnel on established programs.
Dr. Grant McDougall: You bet that. I absolutely believe that and I’m so glad you brought that up. I think, you know, we’re lacking that, one of the big problems with first responders, and especially, you know, law enforcement is, their role is so complex and so varied. If we did, you know, the world’s greatest training in every area, I mean, they would spend all of their time training on legal, training on defensive tactics, they’re asked to do so much. So, you know, it’s not surprising that they don’t have much in-depth training in certain areas but my argument is this is when the areas we really need to be focused on or we’re going to continue to lose officers at an alarming rate.
Audience Question: Is there any way to reliably measure personnel resilience involving traumatic events?
Dr. Grant McDougall: Boy, these are great questions. Not to my knowledge. There is a lot of research being done on emotional resilience on a corporate level, and on a law enforcement level and there certainly are techniques. And in fact, I did not have the option to go in-depth into that, but there are certain techniques, strategies, behaviors that we can implement that will help you increase your resilience. But specific to law enforcement, I’m not aware of any studies that are out there that look really closely at a measured impact on those specific behaviors and so forth. Again, more research needs to be done, in my opinion. You know, one of the frustrating parts about this is and I want to be very clear, I’m not an academic. I am truly not. I served on faculty at the University of Florida for a while but I was on there long enough to realize I’m not a very good academic. But we do need more research in these areas. We need more data in these areas. To my knowledge, there’s not anything out there that we can show a direct correlation saying, ”Okay, if you do this exercise or if you do this particular training or if you do these particular maneuvers or you know, activities, and then you’re going to have increased emotional resilience”. Measuring is very difficult to do. It’s tremendously difficult to do and I also think that emotional resilience is something that’s very fluid. So, you may be emotionally resilient at one point in your life that may change 10 years later, depending on life circumstances, age, so forth.
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