How Trauma Can Impact Police & Public Safety Professionals
Dr. Robert J. Cipriano Jr., Psy.D., ABPP
Licensed Psychologist in Florida & North Carolina
Board Certified in Police and Public Safety Psychology, American Board of Professional Psychology
Cordico Advisory Board Member
Trauma can disturb our normal way of life, our beliefs and the very fabric and foundation of once was. It can turn an individual’s life upside down and cause confusion and disarray. It can cause thoughts and feelings of vulnerability and foster a thought process for searching for the meaning and purpose in life. It can also change a person’s self-esteem, sense of worth, and sense of self. As a result some seek out others, some isolate, and some lose faith while others find it. Some come to believe life is not worth living, while others may find a greater resolve and re-prioritize what is truly important in life and live life to the fullest.
Public Safety service is complicated to say the least. When the situation is traumatic based, generally emotions fuse with cognitions, and the public safety professional’s experiences are not only subjective but the decisions that he/she may be placed in are often times “gray in nature.”
Examples illustrated of one’s thoughts can be: “what was once important is now irrelevant and what was once irrelevant now becomes the focus of one’s life.” Some clientele whom I have worked with over the years have reported experiencing feelings of: guilt and shame, isolation and loneliness, vulnerability and depression, loss of faith and self-worth, changes in values and attitudes, nightmares and sleep disturbances, marital/family breakdown and physical illnesses, and feelings of self-blame and bitterness. Traumatic events that have triggered a spectrum of trauma based responses have included natural disasters such as: earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, floods, illnesses, and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the man-made disasters and traumatic events have included: bereavement, riots, car accidents, terrorist acts of violence, war, hostage situations, rape, kidnapping, airline crashes, shootings , robberies, job loss, and divorce to name a few. Some of the responses that I would not recommend to someone would be: “put it behind you”, “life happens”, “get over it”, “forget about it”, and “let it go.” The common theme with each of these responses involves a lack of empathy and validation. Validating the individual’s thoughts and feelings can not only help with improving connectedness via empathy, but also potentially reduce the dynamic of “stigma” and lessening the thought that “something is wrong with me” following such a traumatic exposure.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which combines two very effective kinds of psychotherapy: cognitive therapy and behavior therapy can significantly benefit an individual(s) who may be experiencing trauma based reactions beyond a month time frame following such an incident.
Behavior therapy, based on learning theory, helps the individual(s) weaken the connections between troublesome thoughts and situations and their habitual reactions to them. Cognitive therapy teaches clients how certain thinking patterns may be the cause of their difficulties by giving them a distorted picture and making them feel anxious, depressed, or angry (Beck, 1995).
Cognitive therapy is based on a theory of personality which maintains that how one thinks largely determines how one feels and behaves. The therapy is a collaborative process of empirical investigation, reality testing, and problem solving between therapist and client. The client’s negative interpretations and conclusions are treated as testable hypotheses. Behavioral experiments and verbal procedures are used to examine alternative interpretations and to generate contradictory evidence that supports more adaptive beliefs and leads to therapeutic change (Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979).
EMDR- Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing therapy is another therapeutic intervention that can target and assist clientele in the management and treatment of trauma based reactions. Disturbing events can sometimes be stored in a person’s memory in an isolated memory network for a number of years. Such memories can be referred to as “old material/information” that becomes familiar and keeps getting triggered over and over again. In another part of that same person’s mind most of the information that is needed to resolve such disturbing events is not connected or linked up. Same mind, but not connected. EMDR- Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing will help the two networks link up and become connected. New information can enter that person’s mind and resolve the “old material.” As the person processes that information, old events, pictures, sensations or emotions may arise. The “old” information/ “material” can become “scenery,” but it does not have to “pull” the person in or grab hold of the person and weigh them down, emotionally as it once did. EMDR connects and corrects the old information and material that once “weighed” the person down by allowing the new information to sort it out, appropriately. (Andrew Dobo, Psy.D., 2018)
Our brains are a very natural healing mechanism very much like our bodies as we want to heal when faced with an injury. EMDR is helpful for adverse life experiences, not just trauma. EMDR therapy is similar to what happens during REM sleep when we sleep and our brains sort things through and let’s go of things that we don’t need. It’s a very similar mechanism. EMDR can help us go back to when the blueprint was laid down for a negative belief system and change that for the better. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QJbCtr8bvA — Dalene Forester Thacker, PhD- EMDR therapist).
To conclude, public safety professionals are exposed to an abundance of negative situations that overtime can affect the way the individual(s) views his/her world and sense of safety and security. The importance of having peer support team members and/or resources, licensed mental health professionals as external consultant(s), or “in-house” departmental staff, who have backgrounds and experience in working with public safety professionals are prudent.
The public safety support specialist(s) can assist the affected public safety professional(s) in a confidential forum and be a trusted source for not only support, but as guidance for that department/agency to educate personnel along with first line and command level supervisors on topics such as: managing stigma within a department/agency, resiliency building skills, psycho- education on mental health symptoms such as post-trauma stress, confidentiality guidelines, education surrounding voluntary mental health treatment, critical incident stress debriefing, and suicide prevention and intervention (IACP, 2011-2014) to name a few. As public safety evolves through the 21st century, having such supportive and specialized resources are invaluable on so many levels.
Beck, J.S. (1995). Cognitive therapy: Basics and beyond. New York: Guilford Press
Beck, A.T., Rush, A.J., & Shaw, B.F., Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. Guilford Press, NY, USA.
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International Association of Chiefs of Police/Psychological Services Section (2014). Pre-employment psychological evaluation guidelines. Arlington, VA. Retrieved July 4th, 2015 from http://www.theiacp.org/portals/0/documents/pdfs/Psych-PreemploymentPsychEval.pdf