The other "F" word: What the response is really telling you
Personnel will often say they are "fine" even when they are clearly not; here's how to recognize and address stress in public safety
The “F” word, but not what you’re thinking: I’m talking about something else. I can ask any group of officers about how they are doing – whether it’s a crisis intervention team section I’m teaching on law enforcement suicide or one of my other courses specifically geared to officer health and wellness – and this will be the answer: “Fine.”
You know what I’m talking about. If you were to ask any fellow brother or sister how they’re doing, they would likely say fine. And it doesn’t matter what or when. Even following critical incidents like an officer-involved shooting, the answer is almost always, “I’m fine.”
But we all know they’re not fine. You yourself may not be “fine.” I am reminded of something George Carlin, a comedic genius, said (and I am paraphrasing): “Has anyone ever been fine and dandy?” He continued, “I have never been fine and dandy at the same time. I have been fine but not dandy. I have been dandy but not fine.”
“Fine,” But Not Fine
Kidding aside: We often lie to ourselves when we claim to be “fine.” When it comes to first responders, yes, there is stigma. Yes, there are departmental politics. But our dishonesty comes down to fear, ultimately: fear that you may not be the person you thought you were; fear that you are broken; fear that you, the helper, the first responder, now need to reach out and admit that you are not fine.
Being one who helps others, it’s not easy to now require help yourself. But guess what? It’s okay to not be okay. Sometimes it’s fine not to be fine. After all, you are a human, not a machine.
I know the people reading this are mostly great at their jobs. You wouldn’t be reading a blog like this if you didn’t believe in your mission and weren’t good at what you do. But everyone deserves rest and recuperation. It’s not enough to get home, eat something and plop down on the couch and zone out. We need to do a better job of addressing the stress that comes with the work of first response – not just day to day but over the course of a career.
There’s only so much stress anyone can handle. Imagine yourself as a bottle. How much stress can you put in there? Stresses from work, minor annoyances, home-life problems, and so on – how much can you, personally, handle? At some point, you need to tip the bottle over and let some of that out. This is a necessity.
Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Are you destressing in a healthy way? That’s a critical question. If you find yourself tired, short with family and friends, easily irritated, having trouble concentrating, having a low mood and not really enjoying life but merely going through the motions, your bottle is probably close to the top. So what are you doing to drain your bottle in a healthy way?
Nothing beats connecting with another person and relating to them to alleviate stress. But who can our first responders talk to? It might be friends, a chaplain, peer support or a significant other. If you aren’t comfortable talking to your spouse about your stress, I would ask, why not? If it’s fear, you might be overlooking an incredible resource – as well as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship. Communication is, after all, the foundation of a long-lasting bond.
A professional is always a good option. Therapists who know the struggles of first responders exist, and seeing one has never been easier. Telemedicine makes connecting with a trained professional easier than ever.
When I train officers, I tell them, call me. Whether it’s 3 p.m. or 3 a.m., I am here for you. But let’s not get to that point, if possible.
Don’t blindly say you’re fine when you’re not. Deal with what’s bothering you rather than burying it. Dealing with your stress and trauma on a daily basis; having healthy, safe outlets to vent; and getting professional help will help to ensure not only a healthier career but a more rewarding retirement.