Book excerpt: Mental Health Fight of the Heroes in Blue
This book walks law enforcement officers through the steps they can take to help prevent mental breakdowns
The following is excerpted from Scott Medlin's book "Mental Health Fight of the Heroes in Blue." Purchase Scott's book here.
Can you imagine your poor brain as a police officer? Even without technology, the simple fact that you might be going to call after call, day in and day out, is stressful enough.
If we just stuck to our brain’s default settings as police officers, as many of us who do not care to address our mental health do, then absolutely – we are exposing ourselves to an exponentially higher risk of depression, PTSD, and even suicide.
Why? Think about policing. It is the exact opposite of what your brain wants. You are constantly putting yourself in danger. Your mind must work hard to process information carefully when you are approaching potentially hostile people. It cannot relax as often as it wants to.
Our evolutionary blueprint tells us to go right, and we go left – pretty much every time. The result is the impetus for this book: depression, PTSD, addiction, and suicide. It sounds like a grim picture, but thanks to the science of neuroplasticity, it is an opportunity to exercise.
Here is what I mean by “exercise”: Just imagine you have put on a solid 5 or 50 unwanted pounds. Are we confused as to how or why that happens in the 21st century? Is it like, “Wow, I must not have worshipped the right gods.” These are modern times. We know it is because of beer and chips.
Nevertheless, still, when this happens to the mind, we are stunned and confused. It is much harder to acknowledge and address the more discrete symptoms of mental illness than a belly that literally sticks out for everyone to see.
The point is this: addressing your mental health as a police officer is an active process. What is more, it is an ongoing process. You do not just “lose the weight,” as it were, and never worry about it again. So long as you are working in the field, you will always, always have to “work out.”
You cannot even begin to address your mental health issues, however, if you cannot identify them. That is why the first step is reflection. As I mentioned, you should first identify the real reasons for your negative thought patterns. It may sound simple, but it is not always.
Once you have identified the problem perceptions, you can condition your brain to associate the memories that caused those perceptions with more positive stimulus.
And then you do it again. And again. And again.
This is not a singular problem that you fix. It is a permanent lifestyle change that requires ongoing, active involvement.
I want to conclude this chapter by emphasizing just how powerful of an improvement in your mental wellbeing you can create by using neuroplasticity as your engine of change.
This Is Your Brain on Positive Thinking
I will start with the “doom and gloom” first, but then we will round it out with the good news, so stick with me if you would.
Many police officers who do not address their mental well-being healthily and appropriately may feel as though their body is trapped in a survival mentality. They may become selfish and insecure.
It seems like a bit of a vague connection, right? Why do we feel scared, stressed out, and irritable all the time? Well, yeah, those three are, of course, a significant presence, but hear me out for a second.
Back to the beloved Neanderthal analogy. Let us say you stumble out of your cave one morning to find a dire wolf camped out, waiting for you. SNAP – before you know it, the damned thing has clamped down on your ankle, sending a red-alert in the form of searing pain to your brain.
“We aren’t going down today,” your brain says. “It is survival mode time.” Your sympathetic nervous system kicks in. You know the rest – hormones, blood rushing to your muscles, everything moves in slow motion, etc.
Let us say this encounter evolves into a long-winded chase. Every time the wolf gets close, you whip around and fight it off with a club or something.
During this whole episode, and for several hours after (and remember, the hormones are still in your system), are you in a balanced and healthy mindset? More specifically, are you thinking about others?
Of course not. You are not thinking about other people or ideas. Your brain is not entertaining abstract thoughts about music or movies or whatever else you like. You do not remember the vacations you have taken.
You may be utterly selfish at that moment because your survival depends on it.
As police officers, this creates problematic thought patterns. Think about it this way: eventually, the scary stimulus goes away. The threat of it, however, is always looming in your mind. And remember, your emotional center cannot tell the difference between the memory of an event and the actual facts of what occurred.
So, what do you do when you have these hormones continuously pumping, but there is no actual threat occurring at that moment?
Well, you become self-obsessed in other, less immediate ways. You have negative thoughts about how people talk to you. You become upset with yourself over your weight, or that mistake you made yesterday, or whatever else.
This is because the hormones of stress place a massive emphasis on our immediate, material surroundings. They whisper to your subconscious, stop worrying about your long-term goals, and all these other unnecessary thoughts. Just get what you need right now or die.
It is not that you become a jerk in your conscious mind. You still want to be a good spouse or significant other. You want to be a good parent. However, this selfish insecurity driven by your prolonged survival mentality is yet another hurdle in the way.
I have already explained the value of replacing negative associations with positive ones in terms of overcoming negative thought patterns. It is naïve to think, however, that any police officer could completely fortify their mind against the survival mentality.
It is inevitable. It is highly manageable but still unavoidable. Even if you can eliminate nearly all your negative and selfish thought patterns, you cannot rewire your brain’s survival drive.
You can, however, insert a new player into the field that will potentially deter the side effects I have just been mentioning – self-obsession and insecurity.
That player is grateful.
Be thankful for what and who you have. Wake up and meditate on it. Take a moment when you have one to tell your loved ones that you love them. It is not a lie, either. We are so coddled in this era that it is ridiculous. I mean, we hunt for sport. When you think about that, it is kind of crazy.
What does gratitude do? It directly contradicts these pesky manifestations of stress hormones. It tells your brain, “No, you do not need to worry about that right now. Worry about it when we’re arguing with the next criminal.”
And boy, do the possibilities open up when you have mastered gratitude. You can work on yourself more healthily, with a greater emphasis on self-discovery, reflection, ambitions for the future, and creative thinking. You can enter a productive and healthy mentality, even when that threat of danger looms in the background.
I know it sounds a little corny at first, but entering a grateful mentality is the answer to so many mental health issues – including but not just depression, PTSD, and anxiety.
I hope after reading this chapter that you have a more intimate understanding of just how malleable and coachable your brain actually is. In some cases, it is a matter of rewiring of negative associations. In others, you are using positive thought patterns to mediate the effects of those stress hormones.
I mentioned briefly that the body and mind maintain a highly important synergy that can make or break your career in law enforcement. Neglect your physical wellbeing, and the brain will suffer. Neglect your mental health, and the body will suffer.
Rather than merely stating the problem, I want to delve much deeper into it because it is so integral to the issue of mental health and suicide risk in the law enforcement community. That said, let us carry on to our chapter about the mind-body connection.