Home Is Where Healing Begins – It is more than a slogan. It is the Serve & Protect philosophical approach to addressing emotional wellness for public safety professionals and their families.
Since 2011, Serve & Protect has placed almost 6,000 public safety professionals and family members into trauma therapy treatment. We have taken several calls from suicidal first responders – and spouses. Throughout those years, we have pretty much heard it all from both first responders and spouse or family member. Nothing shocks us anymore.
Through the years, one observation is that public safety families, in particular spouses, are not prepared for the life of their partner. Most departments do a disservice to public safety families and provide little opportunity for marriage survival because of the lack of information. So, it is no wonder that as many as two-thirds of first responders are divorced – at least once.
As we have talked with many spouses who have called, we also heard about feelings of drifting apart, lack of communication, refusal to talk about the job, or, the job being first in their spouse’s life. Some feel isolated, not really connected on a heart level. Because of the emotional trauma first responders experience, many are not demonstrative of their emotions or feelings. Real conversation is often rare. Because many first responders work extra jobs, the feeling of isolation and lack of communication can seem like abandonment.
Communication is further endangered by what I refer to as the “cast iron shield.” It is an emotional defense mechanism that allows first responders to experience the carnage and trauma they experience by disconnecting emotionally. They become desensitized to feelings, emotions, regarding themselves and those around them. However, the “shield” is not like the uniform that can be shed at home. The emotional protection, the guard, stays in place, thus, harming meaningful communication.
To address that real need, Serve & Protect launched a Spouse Peer Advocate team comprised of first responder wives who have survived, learned, and who teach others how to navigate the marital travails they experience. That team is accessible through our services line – 615-373-8000, option 3. Our team leader, Mendi Keatts, will assess the need and pair the caller with a first responder wife to help walk through tough times. Mendi is a police wife, a practicing therapist, and actually went through the police academy. These advocates are available as a listening ear – spouse to spouse – at no charge.
“The most important partner we have on the job is the one that waits at home and can help pick up the pieces when needed. Those we live with know us and what is normal for us. They are the first to recognize when something is outside of that normal. Working together, the officer and spouse can find the path to peace when the storms of life rain down. With God as the ultimate Healer and Protector, spouse advocates support the healing that begins at home. We are here for the spouses to help them bear up the weight of love and support for their officers. Building the strength of the supportive home fosters the healing that only God can truly bring. We believe this with our whole hearts and offer that to any spouse in need. Home is where the healing begins.” Mendi Keatts.
We have helped spouses with unfaithful partners and some who were unfaithful themselves. There have been a few who called after their spouse died by suicide. Many we have helped have a first responder self-medicating or struggling with post-traumatic stress symptoms. And some spouses – and children – were physically abused.
Let me pause here to say, no spouse should endure emotional and/or physical abuse. Not one. If a spouse feels threatened or is battered, get help. Report the abuse. No one, regardless of profession, has the right to abuse. If when trying to report the abuse the spouse runs into interference in the department, call the county. Seek legal protection. And never let a pastor or religious leader spiritually abuse you by insisting it is no big deal. The spouse must seek safety for themselves and their kids.
When the family unit is dysfunctional, each member struggles emotionally. I grew up in such a family. Addiction. Anger. Rage. As a kid laying in bed hearing the yelling, the insecurity and anxiety were wrapped in depression. That led to my own self-medication and 2 suicide attempts as a teen. The kids experience relational trauma first hand. I know that feeling of hopelessness.
Spouses often seek out relief from friends, family, and for many, church. Some turn to affairs. Some consider taking their own life. Sadly, a great deal of the depression is from what they do not know about their loved one’s work.
The same is true for the first responder. If emotional security is not at home, they may seek relief from substance abuse and self-medication, because the home issues compound the trauma they see on the job. They may seek emotional and physical relief from an affair. We have heard the stories first hand.
Dysfunction in the home can also be problematic at work. When one goes to work already angry, bad things can happen on the street, with superiors, and with peers. Tragically, if work and home are both trauma filled, self-harm can be the result. Today more first responders die by their own hand than in the line of duty.
So how can these issues be mitigated?
First, by not pointing fingers. It takes two to fail, just like it takes two to succeed.
- Healing begins with understanding – which begins with talking. Conversations with a neutral and trained third party can begin building a bridge of understanding.
- The best would be a trauma therapist trained in relationship issues as well as trauma – experienced with first responders – can help considerably.
- Complimenting this might be individual therapy to work on personal issues.
- Talking to a Serve & Protect Spouse Advocate will help. These advocates have lived the life and learned many lessons. (615-373-8000, option 3)
Second, take time to talk about each other’s fears and expectations.
- What does the first responder wish the spouse understood – or even knew.
- And – what does the spouse wish the first responder understood or knew from their perspective.
- This open communication can set aside preconceived perceptions that may not be accurate and can open the door to understanding.
Third, learn about the first responder’s job,
- perhaps attending the department’s citizen’s academy if they have one.
- Also consider a ride-along if that is available. Spend a shift in the first responder’s shoes.
Fourth, first responders, be proactive in your relationship.
- Never assume anything. Let your spouse know you are alright. When you leave, they start to worry.
- Equally important, never ever assume they know you love them – same for your kids. Tell them often, show them with quality time and presence.
For those of us from a faith background, I cannot underscore enough the role this played in my own life. As a federal and local Chaplain, I have the honor of offering hope and peace to those I serve.
- The faith community is a tremendous resource for families and for anyone seeking hope.
- With all public safety encounters, having a church or fellowship in which you participate can be a real source of strength.
- Prayer is one resource we can exercise anytime, anywhere.
- Having friends to call who share your beliefs is another source of peace.
- Serve & Protect can connect you with a Chaplain who understands the job and enjoys confidentiality, with whom you can find a listening ear and caring heart.
Most of all, know that the journey to a strong family is not one you need to take alone. Resources are available to help you along the way. These are but a few ideas. Call our Spouse Advocate Team, 615-373-8000 option 3. We charge nothing for our services. Never have.
Robert Michaels is the founder and CEO of Serve & Protect (www.serveprotect.org), a unique non-profit facilitating broad based trauma services and conducting
seminars for public safety and their families on the topic of trauma and suicide. Since 2011 they have placed almost 6,000 in trauma treatment. Michaels served as a MP with the Virginia National Guard and as a Detective with Norfolk VA Police. He is a graduate of Columbia International University ’81 and Wheaton College Graduate School ’84. He is State Chaplain for the Tennessee Fraternal Order of Police, for the FBI Memphis Division, and for Brentwood Fire Department. Rob is the 2017 recipient of the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award for the Memphis Division, and is a member of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress and ILEETA.