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17 things to think about emotional wellness after Dallas

In taking that oath to serve and protect society, you also accepted the possibility and responsibility of the invisible injury of trauma


Police officers take part in a candlelight vigil at City Hall, Monday, July 11, 2016, in Dallas. Five police officers were killed and several injured during a shooting in downtown Dallas last Thursday night.

AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

If you made the shooting scene in Dallas, then you’ve been injured. All normal, feeling human beings who responded to the shooting and crime scene will be affected on some level. Your injury is a normal response to an abnormal event. Most importantly, treat — don’t ignore — your injury.

Here are 17 things for all first responders — not just those who responded to the scene of a recent mass shooting — to consider about emotional wellness following a large-scale critical incident.

1. Acknowledge your injury and be kind to yourself so that you can heal.

2. Keep to your normal routine as much as possible. You will find solace in normalcy and so will your family.

3. Discharge the injury. Cry. Talk to someone close to you, another first responder, a loved one, your clergy, a friend. You don’t have to tell them what you saw, but share how you feel. Write down your feelings in the form of a letter, journal, poem, or email. You don’t have to keep what you write. Shred it or burn it. The act of connecting language, either spoken or written, to traumatic memories has been scientifically proven to heal and help your brain store and make sense of the memories.

4. You are hurting, injured. If you were bleeding, you would seek treatment, get stitches. Your psyche and soul need those stitches.

5. Keep busy with productive activities such as household chores, exercise, cook, mow the yard, watch comedies.

6. Avoid excesses of anything: food, booze, gambling, sex, spending, etc.

7. Limit your time on the Internet and watching or reading the news. You lived it. You don’t need to re-experience the trauma over and over again.

8. Take advantage of the psychological counseling or peer support resources your agency makes available to you.

9. Your reaction may be more personal and intense if you knew one of the victims. This is normal. Be aware of this phenomenon and provide increased tolerance and compassion for officers personally impacted.

10. Educate yourself about the symptoms of post traumatic stress because you may experience one or more of the following:

  • Hypervigilance
  • Anger and rage
  • Emotional numbness
  • Irritability
  • Guilt
  • Depression
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares and/or trouble sleeping
  • Panic attacks
  • Avoiding thoughts of the incident
  • Physical sensations such as upset stomachs, joint or headaches, sweating, breathing difficulties, chest pains, trembling, or chills
  • Memory lapses or trouble concentrating
  • Jumpiness or being easily startled
  • Social withdrawal or isolation

These are all normal reactions following an abnormal event. You are not crazy if you experience one or more of these symptoms in moderation. If any of these symptoms overtake your life, become uncontrollable, or you cut yourself off from those you love or who love you, seek help.

11. Control how and when and to whom you recount your ordeal. You don’t owe other people a play-by-play. Recounting the memories over and over will drag you through it again and again and open the healing scab. Don’t pull out those much needed stitches.

12. Avoid “what-if” thinking such as “What if I was closer, got there faster, didn’t make that traffic stop across town minutes before the shooting. What if I could have prevented it?” Don’t do that to yourself. What if thinking isn’t productive unless it’s used to improve future tactics, training, or procedures.

13. Feeling helpless is normal. Feeling vulnerable is normal. As much as you would like to think otherwise, you are not Superman or Wonder Woman. You are human, mortal, and an emotional being. Allow yourself to be that.

14. Reach out to others who are also injured, mourning, and grieving. Peer support heals everyone including you.

15. Hug people, family, spouses, kids, friends, pets. Share the pain, don’t hide it, hoping to protect those you love from the trauma. In doing so, you will only hurt them more.

16. Use pet therapy. Pets are great to talk to. They don’t judge or advise. They listen with unconditional love.

17. Suicide rates escalate in the wake of a traumatic incident. Monitor yourself and your fellow officers. Signs may be evident or hidden. Don’t let the death toll rise.

This Hurts Us All
Every first responder across this country feels the pain of the shooting in Dallas. As police officers, we are the caretakers of society.

This hurts. All of us.

Tend to your invisible wound. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Having this invisible wound doesn’t make you weak or less of an officer. It makes you human. Makes you everything that the evil that perpetrated this crime was not.

Wounds can heal if you tend to them appropriately.

You are a first responder, a police officer, a warrior because of who you are and what you believe in. You took an oath to serve and protect and that also means you accepted the risk, the possibility of being killed, injured, or disabled in the line of duty. In taking that oath to serve and protect society, you also accepted the possibility and responsibility of the invisible injury of trauma.

Warriors embrace trauma as part of the task and allow themselves time to lick their wounds and heal.

Acknowledging trauma is heroic, not weak. Treat your wounds. Seek those stitches. Honor your trauma.

If you need someone to talk to, please reach out to me via email here. If I can’t assist you, I know someone who can and will.

Barbara A. Schwartz has dedicated her life to supporting the brave officers of law enforcement.

Schwartz is certified as a first responder peer supporter by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) and the Law Enforcement Alliance for Peer Support (LEAPS). She maintains specializations in grief, injured officer support, suicide prevention, and traumatic stress injuries.

As a Police Explorer scout and reserve officer, Schwartz served in patrol and investigations. Her articles and book reviews have appeared in American Police Beat, The Thin Blue Line, Command, The Tactical Edge, Crisis Negotiator Journal, Badge & Gun, The Harris County Star, The Blues, The Shield, The Police News, and Calibre Press Newsline.

Schwartz was instrumental in securing the passage of the Blue Alert legislation in all 50 states. She is proud to be a founding member of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Foundation.

She maintains memberships in the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) and the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA).

Contact Barbara here.

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