The Impact of Fear and Shame on Trauma and Suicide

When most people hear that startling fact they are stunned.

The typical response, “really, that is terrible.”  Indeed, it is terrible – moreover it is a disgrace.

Emotional wellness is the new buzz in many public safety circles. President Trump ordered the DOJ to work on Officer suicide, and two working groups have been formed. In recent years a few organizations began numbering suicides in some public safety ranks such as police, fire, and corrections.  The truth is, no one really knows the real number of suicides for any of these professions, but we do know that corrections suicides are double the suicide rate of police. Often accurate numbers are unavailable because of under or non-reporting by agencies. This is especially true for retired personnel because they can easily fall through the cracks..

The question that remains is why. What is behind public safety suicide? Several answers arise – legal or administrative issues, grief, domestic issues, illness, post-traumatic stress untreated, all leading to hopelessness and despair.

I have taken those calls from a first responder – or a first responder spouse – who is suicidal. Right then, wanting to die. Fortunately, they were all persuaded to choose life.

Recently I have been analyzing public safety suicides. In particular, first responders. Are there any common traits?

A more in-depth study of police suicide is being conducted by Dr. Olivia Johnson, an educator who served both in the military and law enforcement. Rather than just counting numbers, Dr. Johnson is digging deep to glean any information that will help form a solution. Her “” provides a vehicle to capture reporting data as a starting point to the hard work of her 50+ point analysis and investigation.

Likewise, Jeff Dill, founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance studies firefighter and rescue suicides. His data covers many specifics to help understand this crucial topic.

I am proud for Serve & Protect to be associated with both of these. I trust both of their  methods and motives.

My purpose here is not diving into the weeds, rather, taking a look at three basic issues I believe critical to understanding this crisis. First is fear, then shame, and the other, domestic issues.

Having served in both the military as a MP and in law enforcement both in uniform and as a detective, I have reflected on the training process – designed to hone skills and create natural responses to threats and circumstances. Skills must be second nature.

This is not fear of doing the job – rather – fear of asking for help. The fear of stigma. Consider this. NYPD has had 12 suicides THIS YEAR. Compare that to 3 line of duty deaths for the entire state. A headline in the New York Post on 9/10, “NYPD will let cops seeking mental-health treatment keep their badges.” The article continued, “The department said Tuesday it had revised its fitness-for-duty policy so officers can hold onto their shield — even if they are forced to turn over their firearms while they seek mental-health treatment . . . Officers have historically been hesitant to make their mental health struggles known in the department — out of fear it would affect their career.”

The abject fear of asking for help can be emotionally paralyzing. This development by NYPD is a long overdue step in addressing trauma and the perceived stigma in asking for help. If first responders work in a department where this fear exists, where such a policy is not the rule, they will NOT likely ask for help. Rather, too often, they self-medicate. They hide behind a mask. They fear being stripped of the job they love, of being shamed in front of peers and family.

Yet fear and intimidation is a staple of training in military and public safety. I went through basic training in the Viet Nam era. Without hesitation, I can say the drill sergeants did not approach a recruit who screwed up and say “son, there is a better way to do that.” No, they humiliate the recruit and scream at them that their error will cost lives.  Why? Because in combat, whether in our homeland as an officer or in country fighting a war, there are no second chances to get it right. Lives may well hang in the balance.

Yet that very training can instill in officers a reticence to ask for help. The fear of being shamed is strong, and can be emotionally debilitating. So asking for help is too often a non-starter because the fear of losing one’s badge takes priority over help.

Dr. Brene’ Brown says “We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous.” Of course, this flies in the face of training for combat and survival. But she is right. Therein lies the challenge.

For Dr. Brown, a word too far removed from public safety may be a key – vulnerability. For those on the front line, that word conjures up weakness. Dr. Brown says, “Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”

Fear? Of what? Well, asking for help when raw emotions are eating away at our being, fear of someone shaming us for asking for help. Shame just like in training. The stigma.

I never experienced a drill Sergeant saying to a recruit privately – “son, there is a better way to do that.” No, the recruit is called out in the midst of his or her peers and ridiculed. The idea – perhaps they will learn quickly to enhance their chance of survival.

It is my contention that the shame and intimidation experienced or witnessed in training carries over – and that fear of being shamed in front of peers because of emotional wounds evokes frightening memories.

“Fitting in and belonging are not the same thing. In fact, fitting in is one of the greatest barriers to belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” Dr. Brown continues, “Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust. It’s not oversharing, it’s not purging, it’s not indiscriminate disclosure, and it’s not celebrity-style social media information dumps. Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them.”

Belonging. That is a driving force in both military and professions like police, firefighters, and corrections. Concealing emotional struggles behind a mask of strength is a defense mechanism to preserve the belonging. This is especially true for those retired. Who are they? If their identity is their job, considerably depression may ensue. Tracking retired suicides is difficult at best.

Moreover – there is the fear of being shamed within their personal family. After all, these professions are made of heroes, tough guys and gals, not vulnerable crybabies. No one wants to seem weak to a spouse or their kids. Moreover, from the first day on the job, emotional experiences mount cumulatively. Carnage, sights of the worst humans can do to themselves or others. I call what happens the forming of a “cast iron shield,” our protection from what we see, emotional desensitization to protect us from the harsh reality of the body being someone’s child.

That protection of emotional numbing, combined with a fear of shame, creates emotional isolation. It creates a barrier for real emotional connection within the family, with friends, and yes, with peers. Those in these professions do not talk to family about what they see or experience, wanting to protect them from the trauma and reality of the world.

Complicating this, departments rarely prepare spouses, partners, or family members for the real change that WILL happen in their loved one. Being uninformed, family members can easily interpret the refusal to share, to open up, as a personal matter. Why? Because no one told them it would happen.

In grad school I studied communications, and one aspect was “inoculation theory.” It posited that when someone was to face a challenge or new experience, if educated on what they might experience, they will be better prepared when they encounter the situation or information. The experience is approached with an informed view.

For example – in some cultural circles children are told to not trust police. From a young age they are preconditioned to believe police will hate them, attack them, or not be fair in their treatment. For some, that leads to confrontation, violence, and a hard path – believing what they were told is true. For others, who encounter police, they are caught off guard by the officer who helps them, shows compassion, or gets involved in a pickup game of basketball, helps them when struggling. Their opinion and expectation is challenged from what they were taught, and that person forms their own opinion.

The same can happen in a marriage. If the spouse does not understand why the public safety professional does not share their experiences of the day when they come home and is not talkative – or is abrupt, it can be taken personally. Because they did not know this can be normal, assumptions can be made. Part of the job or inadequate preparation for families? Both. Families must be given insight.

Conversely, the informed family gives that officer or firefighter space and understands a time of decompression may be needed. The informed family provides a place of understanding, of emotional support. The fear of shame may well subside.

The divorce rates among police, fire, and corrections professionals are far beyond the average citizen. Some reports say 75% police are divorced at least once – and firefighters as high as 87%. Corrections is reported to be 20% above the national average, putting them in the same range.

It is my contention that a dysfunctional relationship can contribute to and perhaps exacerbate trauma and suicidal ideations among anyone, but especially dangerous for public safety professionals. This is the motivation behind launching the Serve & Protect Spouse Advocate helpline, staffed by first responder spouses, and our “Home Is Where Healing Begins” focus.

The stress and trauma of the job can be overwhelming. We know that. But my concern is when the first responder leaves for work to face the trauma of the job after just leaving turmoil in the home, bad things can happen. It is like the surface tension in a glass of water – where just one more drop caused the liquid to flow over the edge. An argument with a spouse of child can set the stage whereby the first responder is already stressed when they arrive for shift.

Moreover, stress in the home can lead to the first responder looking for ways to avoid returning home to more conflict. Too often this can lead to seeking affirmation elsewhere or seeking means of numbing emotions. Neither are healthy responses.

Part of the problem is that far too many departments have training for spouses when the first responder starts their career.

First, public safety departments and their administrators need to follow the lead of NYPD. Understand that seeking psychological help should not cost a career.  Serve & Protect gets calls for help from first responders in departments who might terminate them for asking for help. So the caller wants to forego using insurance, rather, paying cash. Having to get help on the QT adds to the feeling of shame and can impede progress in healing.

Allow the mental health process to play out. Let the first responder get real help and heal. It is far better to have a healed employee than one hiding their emotional wounds. Departments who encourage healing are far more equipped to care for the emotional wellness of their staff than those who cause fear and stress.

Moreover, properly educated in emotional wellness, departments can reduce the impact of shame and fear. Regular emotional wellness checkups should be no more shameful than a physical checkup. The Rudermann Report stated that less than 5% of departments have suicide prevention education. That is shameful and unacceptable.

Education is the key – from the top down and bottom up. Teaching officers about post traumatic stress and the potential that unresolved trauma can lead to suicide. Making every effort to remove stigma from asking for help.

Lastly, departments must educate families. Teach spouses about the challenges of the job, teach couples better ways to express their needs and ways to communicate when it has been a bad day. One therapist married to an officer went on a ride-along. After shift, she was stunned at all that went on that night. It was an eye opener.

Teach families emotional wellness strategies and equip them with tools for survival. Help them develop realistic expectations and embrace emotional wellness as a couple, a family.

Emotional wellness is more than a program, it is a way of life. It is more than the new buzz word. It is as vital to public safety as their vest. We must provide emotional tools for survival with no fear of shame. Emotional armor. We must prepare and preserve public safety families. Lives depend on it. Families deserve it.

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