“You can’t take care of anyone else unless you first take care of yourself.”
For many of us in law enforcement, we spent a huge chunk of energy, working to get our first real job as a police officer. For most, the day we got “pinned” (have a loved one place your badge on your uniform for the first time) is one of our proudest and for those first few years we live the life of a hard charging, criminal catching, life-saving, super cop.
It usually doesn’t take long to realize that as fulfilling as this job can be, we all need down time to decompress. In fact, not taking that time away from the job leads to a plethora of negatives, but we can save those for another day.
People often ask first responders, “How do you handle seeing (insert horrible experience here)?”
Often times we don’t have a good answer. For many things that police officers and firemen and EMTs see, there is in fact no way to prepare for. To see some of the most atrocious crimes imaginable and their aftermath. To see victims that you know will never be the same. To see people at their worst, their weakest, their most vulnerable.
Being the guy (or gal) that has to enter a home to find a lonely elderly person who died and nobody noticed missing for days or weeks, or carry a deceased toddler out of the wreckage of a car accident. To be the one that has to knock on a door to give tragic news to a family… Not only are there few effective ways to prepare a rookie officer, there are few ways to prepare a police veteran who has done the job for years. It is a fact that constant stress eagerly consumes our physical and mental resources.
So how do first responders handle that stress? How do they not let the effects of routinely witnessing tragedy lead them to a scary and depressing place?
There is no one answer, but more often a wide array of solutions for us to keep our head in the game.
The following tools can not only help officers, but anyone who deals with high stress scenarios on a regular basis:
1. Take time away from the job. We all want to excel and do our part at work, but taking the time to recharge and be away from the job is equally important. I would prefer to have an officer 100% effective for 40 hours a week, instead of having him or her 70% effective for 60 hours a week. Keeping ties with family strong and making time with loved ones a priority makes for a better police professional.
2. Change up your routine. In a job as fluid as law enforcement, it is not hard to change up the order in which you do things over the course of your workday. I am willing to bet this applies to many other fields of endeavor as well. Don’t let yourself get stuck in that rut at work of mechanically doing things the same way for days or even years on end.
3. Take care of your body. This is a tough one for police officers (and many other first responders) but it is vital to a long and healthy life. If you ask any officer they will tell you that there is an inexplicable pull that draws us to fast food restaurants! Usually the ease and speed at which we can eat there is a major plus, but a consistently poor diet can have devastating effects on not only our body, but our mind as well. Beyond that, I can’t tell you how vital being physically active is to maintaining a good outlook on your duties. Not only does exercise keep us physically fit, it is a stress reducer and an effective way to vent the energy and restlessness that often comes with the job.
4. Don’t be afraid to talk about it. The common thinking in years past was to bury anxiety and depression and never bring it up, but science and medicine have proven the being able to vent and address these issues is a far better way to repair the mind/spirit and prepare to enter the fray again.
5. And last but certainly not least…FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE. There are positives happening around us every single day. In the police world, missing kids are found, stolen property recovered, and criminals are caught. Not only that but despite the negative spin that is often portrayed in the media, millions of kids around the nation still pin on a toy badge and long for the day that they can wear the real thing, and millions of citizens support the work being done! You are still one of the good guys… don’t forget it.
Whether you are a police officer, fire fighter, or EMT… a corrections officer, a doctor, teacher or any other professional who society relies on to keep us functional, don’t forget the importance of “Me time”. In taking care of yourself, you will better be able to take care of those who depend on you.
Oh, I almost forgot… thank you for putting yourself out there for me and my family today and every other day you make the conscious decision to saddle up and face whatever gets thrown at you.
Until next time,
Chief Eric Kaiser
ERIC KAISER is the Chief of the Jourdanton Police Department and is a Master Texas Peace Officer.