(The following article was printed in the FBI Magazine Article in the Nov/Dec 2017 Issue)
There are many factors that come into play in defining a long, successful career in law enforcement. As a matter of fact, there aren’t too many professions that demand more of a person than those who carry a gun and wear a badge. There are those intangibles that we all think of, such as honesty, integrity, character and physical/psychological well-being. These areas are all considered when hiring prospective candidates. However, there is no sure-fire way to predict a rookie officer’s staying power. Granted, some officers will leave law enforcement for various reasons, such as higher paying jobs, better hours or location. Then there are the officers who leave because of job related stress, which, most of the time, spills over into their personal lives, disrupting and corroding the family unit. Key factors that will always speak to an officers’ successful career over the long haul, is their ability to practice resilience, the psychological hardiness they possess and self-efficacy to follow through with commitment and determination.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has become a household term within our military. Over the last two decades, PTSD has found its way into the law enforcement field as an official diagnosis as well. Although, nearly all who make a lengthy career in law enforcement will experience Post-Traumatic Stress, not all who experience a traumatic event or critical incident, such as we face in law enforcement on a daily basis, will develop full-blown PTSD. Why is this? Why do some officers develop PTSD, while others who were involved in the same incident are not nearly as impacted? Let’s first define what a critical incident is. According to police psychologist, Roger Solomon, a critical incident is any situation beyond the realm of a person’s usual experience that overwhelms his or her sense of vulnerability and/or lack of control over the situation. In our profession, we like to be in control. It’s how it’s supposed to be. When control is lost, it can be cause for great panic for many. It’s not in our DNA to not be in control of a given situation.
In the aftermath of a traumatic critical incident some officers seem to move forward well, while others struggle. The ability to forge on through adversity speaks to both past engrained experiences and learned behaviors. Michael Rutter, MD, believes that resilience is one’s ability to bounce back from a negative experience with “competent functioning”. Resilience is not a rare ability; in reality, it is found in the average individual and it can be learned and developed by virtually anyone. Resilience should be considered a process, rather than a trait to be had. It is a process of individuation through a structured system with gradual discovery of personal and unique abilities. Several studies have shown that fifty percent of the ability to utilize resiliency comes from parents, or those that had a direct impact on a child’s upbringing. From this, it can be concluded that roughly half of one’s ability to practice resiliency is engrained at an early age. The other determining factor is what is learned through teaching and training. So, yes, we can learn to be resilient as well. An example of this could be learned from the American Psychological Association’s (APA) “Ten Ways to Build Resilience”:
- to maintain good relationships with close family members, friends and others;
- to avoid seeing crises or stressful events as unbearable problems;
- to accept circumstances that cannot be changed;
- to develop realistic goals and move towards them;
- to take decisive actions in adverse situations;
- to look for opportunities of self-discovery after a struggle with loss;
- to develop self-confidence;
- to keep a long-term perspective and consider the stressful event in a broader context;
- to maintain a hopeful outlook, expecting good things and visualizing what is wished;
- to take care of one’s mind and body, exercising regularly, paying attention to one’s own needs and feelings.
In the early 1930’s an American theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the Serenity Prayer. He first wrote this prayer to be used at a sermon at the Heath Evangelical Union Church in Heath, Massachusetts, fifteen minutes from where I grew up.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
Niebuhr must have had a congregation full of police officers when he preached this for the first time. In post traumatic growth research, it was found that the ability to accept situations that cannot be changed is crucial for adapting to traumatic life events. Researchers call it “acceptance coping”, and have determined that coming to terms with reality is a significant predictor of post traumatic growth. According to psychologists Tedeshi and Calhoun, post traumatic growth (PTG) or benefit finding refers to positive psychological change experienced as a result of adversity and other challenges in order to rise to a higher level of functioning. Unlike resiliency, PTG is not about returning to the same life as it was previously experienced before a period of a traumatic incident; but rather it is about undergoing significant ‘life-changing’ psychological shifts in thinking and relating to the world, that contribute to a personal process of change, that is deeply meaningful. Police officers who have experienced traumatic growth report a greater appreciation of life; changed sense of priorities; warmer, more intimate relationships; greater sense of personal strength; and recognition of new possibilities or paths for one’s life and spiritual development. The “new normal” can be a new and improved normal for many who choose to look at their traumatic critical incident through a different set of lenses.
Post traumatic growth is facilitated by relating to others, new possibilities, personal strength, spiritual change, and appreciation for life. In a perfect world, PTG evolves from peer support and close relationships. While resiliency attempts to lead us back to a baseline level of functioning, prior to a critical incident, PTG transcends the baseline. Resiliency and PTG are both crucial in surviving a 20 – 30 year law enforcement career. It bodes well for us to learn all that we can about both. We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to those who care about us.
About the Author: Captain Andy Carrier joined the Georgia State Patrol in 1989 after a two year stint with the Richmond County, Georgia Sheriff’s Department. Over his career with GSP, he has served as a road trooper, adjunct and full time instructor, assistant post commander, post commander and assistant troop commander. Carrier also served at GSP HQ’s in Atlanta, where he oversaw daily operations with of the Honor Guard, Hostage Negotiations and the Critical Incident Support Team (peer support). As a hostage negotiator, Carrier was the primary negotiator in two lengthy, volatile standoffs that gained continuous national media coverage.
Captain Carrier holds a BS in Criminal Justice from Brenau College, a Master of Public Administration from Columbus State University and a Masters in Clinical Social Work from the University of Georgia. He is a graduate of Columbus State’s Law Enforcement Command College and a graduate of the 245th Session of the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Carrier is a licensed mental health clinician in the states of Georgia and South Carolina, specializing in trauma, grief and loss and is certified Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapist. Carrier resides in Augusta with his two children, Justin and Meghan