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10 reasons cops should never get help with mental health

First responders like to avoid admitting their weaknesses and getting help with mental health struggles; isn’t it time for a change?

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Mental health is no laughing matter.

Photo/Jerry Jackson via TNS

Mental health is no laughing matter, but when you work in law enforcement, you sometimes have to laugh to keep from crying.

In my more than two decades on the force, I’ve heard friends and colleagues give every excuse imaginable as to why they won’t get help for their struggles with depression, PTSD, substance abuse and other mental health issues. The following is a roundup of some of the justifications people come up with for neglecting their mental wellness.

Ready to opt out of feeling better?

10. Who Needs That Much Sleep, Anyway?

Working overnight shifts always messes with my sleep quality. Because of this, it’s no surprise when I wake up at the slightest noise, have vivid, disturbing dreams in which my service weapon will not fire, and frequently get up after hours of trying to chase the elusive thing people often refer to as “good sleep.” I have to go to bed when the sun is still high in the sky and then start my “day” as the sun is going down. But I blame my poor sleep quality on the shift work forced on me by lack of seniority.

The thing is, once I can bid for shifts that are more conducive to better sleep hygiene, those intrusive thoughts that were keeping me awake never get better. The wild dreams that had me chasing criminals in literal circles never subside. I often flinch awake in a sweat, panting and knowing I won’t fall back asleep for hours.

I chalk it up to being a busy young mom with a demanding schedule and a young family. I certainly don’t need a therapist to tell me what I already know. So, I struggle through it for years – suffering fatigue and regular, severe headaches. But I’m fine. I still work my share of overtime and special assignments, grinding toward a possible promotion in my future.

9. Head Down, Plow Forward

I rationalize that the best way to fight the demons haunting my sleep is to work them to death. And in truth, the times I walk the line for a five-hour DUI checkpoint after my normal 10-hour shift makes for the best sleep. I’m utterly exhausted from being awake for 24-plus hours and fall into a sleep pattern better suited for the dead. The more I work, the less difficulty I have remembering the disruptions my subconscious has given me in the form of nightmares. Voila! Problem solved. Work more, worry less. I don’t need marriage counseling to confront the issues my spouse and I are experiencing. I just need to spend more time out of the home, working harder. I need more overtime so we can take a lavish vacation and forget all our problems. Everything will be better once we get away for a week somewhere to reconnect. All it requires is more hard work.

8. My Spouse Knew What They Were Getting Into

After all, we discussed this very thing before we got married. I was going to have to put my job first for a few years to climb the professional ladder. We both agreed that advancing in a career as a police officer would be stressful, require odd hours and long days. If we were to seek marriage counseling, all I would hear about is how my job is the problem. Instead, we need to just deal with our issues like adults, without the meddling of a third party who wasn’t there when we discussed this from the beginning.

Because that’s how marriage works, right?

7. It’s No One’s Business

OK, I will admit things have gotten a bit shaky for our relationship lately. But it isn’t anything we can’t handle. All relationships go through phases, so why should we expect anything different? If we just wait, things will eventually improve like they always have before.

Besides, can you imagine the humiliation of having to discuss our private life with a stranger? No thank you. The lack of intimacy is temporary and only due to my schedule. I don’t get enough sleep and that’s why our adult time has suffered. My spouse knows I love him. I don’t have to constantly say it, do I?

The last thing we need is to sit on a sticky leather loveseat in some dimly lit office, dissecting our issues while paying too much money for a person to ask us, “How did that make you feel?” If I want to, I can just dim the lights in the bedroom, take a nap and make this all better right now. We don’t need therapy … we just a little time and things will fix themselves.

6. How Much Is This Costing Me?

Speaking of paying for useless things, therapy is incredibly expensive. We don’t have the money to fork over for weekly sessions. And what exactly would we be paying for? I’ve heard therapists don’t even solve your problems – not really. They don’t pick sides during martial counseling (even though I’m clearly not in the wrong) or tell bratty, incorrigible youth to straighten up and fly right. They ask questions. They say the same things over and over. They try to get the person sitting in the hot seat to draw their own conclusions.

If I already have the answers I need to solve my issues, why would I need to pay a shrink to fix me? Well, I can tell you now, I can handle this myself. I don’t need help. And I certainly do not need medication. Therapists just want to get you on a prescription to get kickbacks from drug companies. Insurance companies push psychiatrists to hand out expensive, mind-altering pills that will just mess with my ability to do my job.

5. I Don’t Do Drugs

It’s my job to catch drug dealers and users. I arrest those who sell narcotics to children and ruin the lives of their consumers. I am not like those common criminals. I don’t do drugs. I don’t need to take medication and be hooked on some pill that won’t let me think straight. If I rely on mood-altering drugs to feel less depressed or anxious, I’m afraid I won’t feel like my own normal self. And if I need to sleep that badly, I can just have a drink or two (or three) to take the edge off. This works almost every night to help me to fall asleep in front of the television. Sure, I wake up groggy, with a splitting headache, but why mess with something that works?

4. People Already Don’t Trust the Police

It’s not like I’m crazy. I’m just stressed from work. I have responsibilities. My job is important. Every single day, people’s lives depend on me functioning at my best. That is quite a bit to live up to even if some people think cops are racist thugs without feelings or humanity.

If a member of my community found out I needed therapy – or saw me at a counselor’s office – they would think even less of me. Thanks to the media and a few rotten cops in this country, opinions about law enforcement are already extremely poor. I refuse to be responsible for tarnishing that image even further. I make a conscious effort each shift to display fairness toward each contact I have on the job. I’m not about to jeopardize what I have built or contribute to the degradation of my profession by getting caught seeing a shrink.

3. People Will Think I’m Crazy

And if the public thinks I shouldn’t be doing my job, they’ll likely tell my administration I’m unfit to continue working. I’m sure it would take human resources about 15 minutes to call me in and make me go through a grueling fitness-for-duty evaluation. I’ll be branded an unstable person and other cops won’t trust my abilities. They will shun me on the job and ask for other partners to work with.

People will whisper about my incompetence behind my back. They will crack jokes about me being “touched by the crazies.” The humiliation will be too much to bear. That is what would cause me to go crazy – having to defend myself to everyone around me. I would rather suffer silently with a divorce and no sleep on my way to a heart attack than let people call me nuts.

2. Mental HealthCare Is for the Weak

The truth is, I am stronger than all of this. Therapy is really there for suicidal people. People who can’t handle the normal stresses of life, those who don’t have good family and friends they can count on. These are the people who need to talk about their feelings, to understand why they are messed up.

I am none of those things. I have a great family and a few good friends, mostly other cops like me, so I’m fine. I don’t feel like killing myself, although sometimes I do fantasize about just disappearing for a while –stopping the treadmill of daily life. But who hasn’t thought of that? It doesn’t mean I need to see a certified therapist or licensed social worker. The fact that I haven’t acted on any of these feelings means I am in control.

I have a handle on my emotions. I can decide my mental state and I am not weak-minded. There is nothing wrong with my brain or the chemicals that surge through it. Only people who have no inner convictions or mental fortitude need to consider talking to someone with the education and expertise to handle the unique stressors faced by law enforcement officers and their families. It isn’t for me.

1. I Know Someone Who’s in Therapy and Is Still Messed Up

I will never forget the guy everyone in my department called Psycho. That’s correct: they all called him that to his face. This was in my rookie year, so I was still internalizing the taboos in police culture about mental health.

The story I heard is that he went to a call involving a three-car collision on an overpass. When he pulled up, a passenger car was fully engulfed in flames and a woman was beating on the rear passenger door. Her hair was on fire. She was trying to get to her child, who was secured in a car seat, trapped and unable to breathe. The officer did everything he could to help her and her baby. He suffered burns to his face and hands before firefighters arrived on scene. The woman was badly burned, too, and the child succumbed to the car’s inferno. The officer was never quite right after that.

He was ordered to see a psychologist. He was off duty for weeks and still went regularly to the department-supplied therapist even after he was cleared for duty. I met him a year after the incident, right before he was finally deemed mentally unstable and forced out of law enforcement. He had been working that final year in a fog and did some pretty outrageous things while on duty. One time he climbed out on a ledge to try to save a man threatening to jump from the top of a parking garage. He almost went over the edge with the jumper.

The point is, he went to all the counseling he could sit through for months and it wasn’t enough to fix him. The pain he endured reliving his trauma every week in the therapist’s office didn’t help him. He ended up losing his job anyway.

There you have it. The top 10 reasons why mental healthcare will not work for me. I know my marriage is crumbling, my lack of sleep is causing physical illness and my outlook on life is pretty negative. But if you really want the truth, I don’t want to experience the awkwardness of talking about my feelings with a professional. I want to ignore the problem and hope for a better tomorrow.

If there were some way to start over, to change the way cops looked at therapy and mental health concerns, to safeguard my psyche against the ugliness this job makes me see, feel and experience, maybe then I would consider talking to someone about what is bothering me. If therapy and medications were normalized or maybe even encouraged instead of being vilified by my peers, then maybe I would find the help I need before I made it past the point of no return. I guess until we all change our narrow views on what works for some and what possibilities could strengthen mental health, these attitudes will persist.

Now if you will excuse me, I am going to need a lot of coffee and to stay very busy for my next shift so I can make it to the drink waiting for me at home to help me sleep and numb the rest of the day.

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Missy Morris started in public safety as a juvenile probation worker after graduating from University of California Santa Barbara in 1991 with a degree in behavioral psychology. She moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to work in probation before quickly transitioning to police work. She spent three years with the Palo Alto and Mountain View police departments as a patrol officer. She spent the following 22 years of her 28-year career at the City of Roseville. Missy worked in critical incident negotiations, eventually becoming the multi-city team leader and serving seven years on the state board of hostage negotiators. Missy feels her greatest assignment was a five-year stint as a traffic motor officer riding a BMW and working fatal accidents. She held several special assignments before retiring in 2020 as a lieutenant. Missy now works with the Lexipol Professional Services Team, working closely with Cordico wellness solution.