Webinar presenter Dr. Peggy Rothbaum answered a number of your questions after her presentation, Protecting the Protector: Who’s Taking Care of You? Here are just a few of her responses.
Audience Question: Can unresolved burnout suffered from a previous job impact performance in my current position?
Dr. Peggy Rothbaum: Absolutely. One of the articles on my website that you can download answers that question. It’s something that I wrote with my current supervisor. What we wrote about is the long-term impact that this stuff may have. We wrote it because it was the second anniversary of 9/11 and we were dealing with our own trauma. We talked about how things like the impact of early trauma can affect us later. It can absolutely transfer from one job to another. That’s a good question.
Audience Question: Many of us in animal welfare got into this job because we love animals. Unfortunately, many of us have to euthanize perfectly healthy and good-sheltered animals, ending their lives way too many times. The guilt never goes away, it keeps coming back. Even though I don’t have any choice and I do consider myself fairly strong emotionally, it always comes up and drains me. What can we do?
Dr. Peggy Rothbaum: This is something that in one of my first conversations with John Thompson, he brought up. This is the epitome of the difficultness of your job. I really think that what you need to do is talk about it. I mean you can talk to each other, that’s helpful, because you’re all experiencing the same thing, but I would really encourage you to find a psychologist who understands trauma. Because I would imagine that you would feel guilty. It must be so difficult, and it’s better not to walk around feeling like that. This is one of the things that our society imposes on you. In a better society, we would be taking better care of our animals. So that’s my best suggestion. Find somebody to talk to because what you said is accurate, you went into it because you love animals. You have to do these things that you don’t want to do and it feels bad.
Audience Question: As a supervisor, how can we distinguish between those officers that are suffering from burnout versus those that just need more training and help with developing emotional intelligence.
Dr. Peggy Rothbaum: I don’t know that there’s a definite answer, but you talk to them, obviously, and listen to them and see what they say. If they’re talking about exhaustion or they bring up events from the past, you can flip back to my slides, which my understanding is you have indefinite access to, and look at the symptoms of burnout and then look at your employee and see if you think that’s what you’ve got. Other people who need more training might have fewer of those symptoms and so they need more nurturance, support, and supervision from you. You can see them grow, they’re not stuck, or they don’t appear to be stuck. People who are burned out appear to be stuck. So. I hope that’s a helpful answer. There’s no definite answer, but you have to assess the situation. I think you can read some of the materials in this webinar to help you do that.
Audience Question: Even though more people are open to seeking mental help, the culture in our profession will look at us as weak if we seek help and in many times label us. I personally know people who are struggling but refuse to seek help. How do we break this culture to find ways for an officer to seek help without feeling marked or labeled as crazy?
Dr. Peggy Rothbaum: That’s a really fantastic question. That came up after 9/11. I can’t remember whether it was the NYPD or the FDNY, the NYPD being the cops and the others being the firefighters. They were somehow aware of this question, partially because they were working with the people at the Oklahoma City National Memorial. They said, everybody in. You had to go into whatever they were offering. I don’t know what it was, individual therapy, group therapy, or whatever. I agree with you and I think to a certain extent people are more open about mental health help, but there is still a stigma. I have a slide on stigma. People perceive themselves, and others perceive them, as weak. That’s just the truth. My patients express themselves in different ways: I feel weak. I’m afraid I’m insane. I’m afraid I’m going to have to be hospitalized like my grandmother was. So how can we break the culture? I don’t know. We’re actively trying to do that now. We’re all in that together but it doesn’t help that the mental health infrastructure has been gutted. It doesn’t help that we have people screaming and yelling and then people assume that that’s what lack of mental health looks like. I don’t have an overall answer except just do your thing in your little corner of the universe. Start talking to people about mental health. Have people come in from the mental health fields. Do seminars. That is certainly something that I would be willing to work with you on, whoever asks that question. Educate people about mental health. This is a tough question and it’s just true. Little by little, I don’t have a good answer except that we’re all trying to do it all the time.
Aaron: I completely agree with you that there’s no easy answer to this question but we’re all helping in little ways.
Peggy: It’s a reflection of where we’re at in the society and you know that’s part of why I started including things like my Woolworth example in my presentation. I mean if you think about it, it’s really crazy. I was going into a Woolworth and freaking out. But if you put it in context, it’s not so crazy. Part of what it does is it lets people know that “Hey, I feel it too.” Maybe me saying that I feel it too and my other examples spoke to some of you and said, “Oh, I do too, maybe it’s not so awful.” So try to do a little bit in your corner of the universe. You cannot fix the whole world, you can only deal with a little bit at a time.
Audience Question: I really appreciate you sharing the story of your ill-begotten lifesavers. How do we identify these types of hidden, unconscious events in our lives that are still impacting us today through transference?
Dr. Peggy Rothbaum: That’s a really great question. The first thing that you can do is look at yourself. Do you have little spots of vulnerability, things that make you anxious and seem like… I hate the word overreact because it’s so judgmental, “Oh, he/I overreacted to that.” Well probably not, it’s probably because his/your mother said the same thing to him/you when she was screaming at him/you as a child. Look at things where you think you were having a reaction that maybe doesn’t fit. It seems a little uneven. It seems that you’re telling yourself, I really should be able to do better here. Or you have other situations that are somewhat similar and you can do a little better, so that is positive. So if you feel a little unbalanced like you are running a marathon on a sprained ankle think about it. There is another thing you can do, and I do this a lot because I’m aware that I’m not aware, if you will. I get people who are close to me to help me by saying “Listen, come on. You tried that last time and it did not work,” or “Are you really going to do that again?” or “We already discussed this situation.” or “I love you and you don’t really have to do it that way.” Watch yourself for unevenness and try to get people who really care about you to help because you don’t want people to give you a hard time, because that’s definitely not going to help. Maybe you have a mentor at work or you can hire somebody to help, go talk to a psychologist. If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, let the psychologist help you see, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t seem to be working for me.”
Audience Question: Can trauma on the job transfer to your relationships with family members, or actually transferred to family members?
Dr. Peggy Rothbaum: Does it transfer from you to family members, absolutely. That’s one of the points I’m trying to make. You go home and when you’re cranky. One of my veterinarian friends says”If I go home and I look upset, my wife doesn’t even ask. She knows that I had a hard day and I need to go sit somewhere.” It can definitely transfer in your interactions with family members. Can you teach family members to have the same reactions? Yes of course. If you go home and you’re cranky and unreasonable because you really had a bad day and your temper’s really short, you can definitely model that, for example, to your child. You don’t want to do that. I know you don’t or you would not ask this question. That’s a good time to seek help. I have a patient who is one of the most miraculous and fabulous people I’ve ever met recovering from severe trauma, and she was taking it out on her kids. We’ve worked all through that. The kids have come in and talked to me as well. As I said, she’s one of the people that I admire most in the universe and we kind of, if you will, untaught the children to react like that.