Protect your mental health: Stop doing these 5 things
Silence and judgment can wreak havoc on an officer's mental wellness
By Nick Halmasy
Being able to identify and address mental health concerns in a culture that is shy to new ideas takes grit.
Here are five things you’re doing that you should stop immediately if you want to lesson on-the-job stress and protect your mental health.
1. Stop judging yourself
One of the ways we try to sharpen our edge is through self-criticism. We call ourselves out on our mistakes in an effort to prevent them from happening again. Unfortunately, this cognitive habit may create an unrealistic and impossible standard for us to keep. Following this practice, when we make mistakes, we will build these up to be bigger, worse and more important than we’d rate the same mistake if someone else had done it. We “catastrophize” the smallest errors in our pursuit of god-like skills.
Judgments chip away at our resilience, and the weight of these judgments can be enough to implode and do worse at the very things for which we are so critical of ourselves. Judgments can also accelerate problem emotions for us, such as anger – and with it a growing sense of irritability and inability to “shake” the problem.
This happens to all of us, but it helps to know that by trying to overcome our judgments of ourselves, we can also help mitigate issues that may come from a difficult call.
2. stop minimizing the impact of difficult calls
Despite the media coverage, not every “headliner” call is going to rattle you. We see a lot, and with that comes a certain level of normality. Therefore, what a person who has no experience in our field views as traumatic might be something we see every day.
But we need to be doing a realistic, honest check. Why? Because the calls that shake us can also be those that seem innocuous. These are the calls that have folks who remind us of family members or friends, and that can hit us harder than the accident with fatalities.
The problem is that we often minimize the impact of calls, whether headliner or seemingly innocuous. After a call, we all take turns denying that anything happened to rub us the wrong way. “I’m fine” is the most common sentiment. And this is also a great litmus test for stigmatic beliefs within your agency. It does grant us a certain easy escape from having to tell those around you that the call shook you.
What strikes me as particularly odd is the fact that you will trust your life with those behind or in front of you, and yet you can’t trust them to take seriously an admission of mental struggle. Let’s use the brother and sisterhood to benefit us, not to harm us.
3. stop avoiding talking to others
This echoes the idea above; however, in a broader sense, you won’t discuss these struggles with anyone. But like a spring, the more we cram and repress, the harder they jump at us when we finally are unable to ignore the issues. We all hit a point where this becomes true.
Peers, friends and, especially, our family, are there to support us. After all, our partners are with us on every call and worry about you when we run out the door. It becomes confusing if we return home distant, irritable and still won’t talk to them.
What should you talk about? Not the gory details. That won’t help. Talk about how that call made you feel. I know, it’s a scary word. Sharing with your partner or peers that you felt “hopeless” or “helpless” helps them understand your struggle. Your partners will thank you because it helps them understand what it is you’re experiencing. This goes a long way to relieve some of those compressed emotions that you have and to build stronger relationships where open discussion is important. As I often tell folks, you might not be able to change what happens at your departments, but you can change what happens at your home.
4. stop thinking that speaking up is showing weakness
The impact of this job didn’t magically appear. It’s been here for a long time. Many people continued in this career despite these struggles. Now, they might not have been able to cope in the appropriate manner, but they used what resources they had.
We know a lot more now, and we know the impact of unhealthy coping skills. But we also have an “untapped” resilience within our agencies. We should use the brotherhood and sisterhood to ensure that it’s no longer considered a weakness to speak up about these issues.
Isn’t it a confusing world that we live in when we congratulate an Olympian who wins gold despite an injury, but if we’re struggling with an occupational injury, it is something to be hidden and ashamed of? The true strength comes from our ability to identify that we are struggling and recover in spite of it.
Weakness doesn’t seem to equal the constant battle of just trying to get out of bed, let alone get dressed and work an 8-, 12-, or 24-hour shift and with all the pressures that we’re expected to work through. And this is the way we can finally work on that lingering, nagging stigma that continues to shade our services.
5. Stop believing that everyone has PTSD
A common misconception is that this role will cause you to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It certainly increases the risk due to the trauma exposure, but it is in no way a guarantee that you are destined for this diagnosis.
PTSD is complicated to diagnose and has specific criteria. Additionally, there are other diagnoses that have similar symptoms that you could be experiencing, like acute stress disorder. (Note: Find a list of the health terms afterthecall.org).
When we blanket everyone with a particular diagnosis, it also dilutes the devastation that it has on those who do develop the disorder. Remember the last time you heard someone reflect on their OCD because their desk is so clean? Yeah, we hear it all the time. Unfortunately, being neat and tidy does not quite capture the obsessive need to complete routines that can interfere with every aspect of your life. When a term becomes so widespread and commonplace, it can become diminished in its severity because its nuances get absorbed into our language.
Let’s take care of ourselves and each other
Take care of yourself. We need to give credit to those who are struggling. We can do that by standing with them, supporting them and taking care of ourselves to prevent future harm.
About the author
Nick Halmasy is a registered psychotherapist and recently retired from a decade in the fire service. He is the founder of afterthecall.org, a free mental health resource for first responders and their families. He is also the clinical director for After The Call CISM team in Ontario, Canada. Reach him at email@example.com.