Working in law enforcement, while incredibly rewarding, can at times also be equally stressful.
And then, there’s events like the Pulse Nightclub Shooing in Orlando.
Or Virginia Tech.
Or Sandy Hook Elementary, in Newtown, Connecticut.
Our immediate thoughts, of course, are with the victims and their families, and how this horrifying event will forever change their lives.
But what's not often talked about, is how such events also impact – and continue to impact – the lives of the first responders who help the victims of these tragedies.
As shared in the COPS and NAMI briefing document, Preparing for the Unimaginable, “The truth, however, is that day-to-day police work includes enough stress and exposure to trauma for chiefs to be concerned about every officer's mental wellness, whether or not you ever experience a mass casualty event.”
- key skills and ability to develop individual and team strength to be better prepared for major traumatic events,
- how to debrief following an action,
- and work toward healthy recovery and team cohesiveness.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Your webinar is specifically about caring for the mental health of our first responders after a mass casualty event has taken place. Talk us through this a little bit: share with us the emotional challenges the typical first responder faces during and post-event and what leaders and members should be doing to take care of themselves and the team after such a horrifying situation.
Amy Morgan: During a mass casualty incident, first responders are acting mostly on adrenalin and managing logistics and immediate response and safety needs. This keeps them focused, functioning, and doing what has to be done in those moments. It’s after the incident ends that the responders will begin to face their emotional reactions to what they just went through. Unfortunately, many responders are expected to just return to their normal work responsibilities and routines the next day, without any effects being addressed. This leaves them with open wounds which they then try to hide, cover, or ignore – but which can present themselves later in many unhealthy forms.
Estimates state 1 in 8 officers have PTSD symptoms.
Badge of Life, 2014
JCH: As a society, we spend a lot of time talking about “planning for” situations or events (like disaster preparedness), but not a lot of time addressing “the day after…” and how to recover from traumatic situations. Share with us how this inclination could be good (or bad) – and how we as teams or organizations should address this?
Amy: These are very difficult situations and our heroes jump in to handle them, and then are expected to act as if they are unaffected by what they have experienced. Anyone, no matter what training or preparation has been done, should be expected to have some sort of emotional response. If those responses are acknowledged and treated properly, the experience can bring resilience to the person. But if not acknowledged, not treated, and essentially if the responder is expected to have no reaction or emotion, there can be both short-term and long-term consequences. Caring for a responder’s emotional health properly can build their resilience, strength, and overall health.
JCH: The mental health, processing and staying healthy after a mass casualty is incredibly important. What in particular drew you to this line of work? What keeps you motivated to continue working in this field?
Amy: I’ve had a deep interest in different areas of mental health for as long as I can remember. One of my areas of focus is suicide intervention, and there are so many facets of mental health that relate to this focus. Areas like rejection, bullying, and personal resilience and general emotional strength are all important areas of study for me. I worked as the Training Officer for an investigative agency for several years and really was drawn to the need of law enforcement officers. Officers, first responders, dispatchers, EMS teams, etc. all see things that most people can’t imagine seeing even once, and they see these things regularly. I feel a need to serve this group, to provide support and education about how they can best help themselves for long-term overall health. Being able to demonstrate how one’s emotional health affects their mental health, and then affects physical health, guides me to continue reaching out and wanting to help this group so that they can keep themselves safe and strong, and can be fully ready to keep others safe.
Studies have linked officers’ stress with increased levels of sleep disorders, Hodgkin's lymphoma, brain cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and suicide. Results included: 25% of the officers had metabolic syndrome. Officers with the highest levels of stress were 4-6x more likely to have poor sleep quality.
JCH: Many our readers and subscribers are in law enforcement, but we have representation from all parts of the justice arena. Can you share some specifics of what different types of justice professionals or first responders will gain by attending your webinar? What skills or new knowledge will they gain that they can immediately apply the day after a mass casualty event?
Amy: Anyone that deals with the safety of others can benefit from this webinar. That could be a judge who is deciding whether a child should be returned to their home or sent to foster care, or it could be an EMS team who shared a really difficult situation and now have to go back into the field and continue working. This webinar will teach some vital skills for becoming a person who has overall strength and resilience so that when a mass casualty incident or other difficult experience occurs, the person is strong and sure and ready to deal with it because they’re at their best. And then I’ll talk about how to get the proper self-care, following an experience, which will help restore that previous level of strength and readiness.
JCH: What guidance or tips might you have for management or the leadership team of first responders who have just gone through a mass casualty event? What should they be particularly sensitive to, or be on the watch for? How can they help their team bounce back from such an event?
Amy: Management and leadership play the most important role in the response team’s recovery and return to optimal readiness. Without the support of leadership looking for ways to be aware of, acknowledge, address, and care for all of the potential responses and reactions to a mass casualty incident, these individuals will find their own ways of coping. Sometimes that will mean not coping, or turning to methods like alcohol, anger, depression, etc. Any leader who wants his/her team to be restored to full capacity and the best mental, emotional and physical health state possible needs to be involved, needs to provide support, and needs to encourage all of the individuals and the team to reach out and accept the care that will benefit them. This is not a one-time thing.. it’s an ongoing provision of care and support.
To watch “Mass Casualty Response Resilience /Post Action Strategic Debriefing,” click here.