“This isn’t how we do things,” Joe says, setting down his coffee mug. “We never had to talk about feelings or debrief like this before. These new guys are changing things.”
Joe is a typical long-term first responder, twenty-five years in law enforcement and looking forward to retirement soon. He’s seen enough but plugs along doing his duty, following protocol and all the requirements of being a life-time servant.
“We just push it down and move on. I don’t share these things at home,” he shrugs. “Why would I share them with some stranger?”
But he does share these things at home, though he never realizes it. His wife sees his eyes, watches how he walks in the door, and notices when he doesn’t sleep well. She checks on him, but he brushes it off as politely as he can and reassures her. He doesn’t want her to worry about him.
“I’m the protector, the man of the house,” he continues. “I’ll process things when I retire maybe, I don’t know. It’s fine though.” He gazes out the window for a moment before shaking his head. “These new guys… They had a different expectation when they signed on for the job.”
The Old Story
The previous narrative was a fictional compilation of a number of real conversations with real first responders. Joe simply represents your average Joe and not an actual individual.
For those who grew up learning and knowing how to simply deal with trauma, suck it up, or push it down, it’s showing. It shows through drinking, divorce, and deaths (both from suicide and unattended medical needs). It shows through burnout, lack of compassion, and very much through attitude.
In earlier generations, it simply was more important to be an outer image of strength than it was to be a deeper understanding of compassion and empathy. One might argue that empathy doesn’t put out fires, stop the bleeding, or cuff a criminal. But that outer image of strength also doesn’t lift broken spirits, give hope to the weary, or comfort those left behind.
The New Story
Those who relate to Joe have a similar notion of dismissal when it comes to newer protocols. They don’t want to talk about their feelings. Those things have legs; they might go too far. Who wants to unearth images and sounds from decades back of trauma? Digging deep or unleashing something more could be catastrophic to their career, their image, or their retirement.
Best stick to the “I’m fine” lie and move on until it’s safe to come out.
But these new tactics have their merit. What if cleaning up your inner core is the new “how we do things” and it clears you up for the next call. What if you can do your job better with a clearer head and lighter spirit. Yes, trauma is still trauma, but it’s lighter when it’s offloaded.
Maybe, just maybe, the rise in mental health diagnoses is contributed by the fact that we never used to check on each other and diagnose like we do now.
The Real Story
At First Responder Coaching, we have similar conversations every day. The new guys are quickly uncomfortable with the job having grown up in a world which talks more and more about one’s feelings. The older folks – ahem, we’re not all that old – grew up sucking it up and dealing.
One thing is certain: it may be time to change how we do things.
It’s a clash of the cultures and no one’s really sure where the line is, but how we do things is certainly changing. The question is, where will it lead and will we take this new road and be better for it?
Departments everywhere are experiencing this clash, this change, and deciding this every day. Some are embracing the new ways while others are not. Some are retiring to avoid change, some are leading the charge, having worked in peer support and left with experiences they hope to prevent newbies from having.
Folks like Keith Hanks, Arjuna George, Tracy Eldridge, and Jim Lydon to name a few have been working in networks for years now to promote a new perspective to dealing with trauma. There’s so many more, and you can check out our Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Instagram for more.
How We Do Things Now
Maybe, just maybe, we can put a spin on how we do things to include a little more mental health care. Imagine if we could continue building resilience, learn new coping mechanisms, and create strategies to foster a healthier, more reliant workforce.
With more education on mental healthcare, we could change how we do things just enough to combat the suicide rate and the drop in personnel in the first responder world. It is possible to do all this while continuing to answer calls, put out fires, and capture criminals.
Change doesn’t have to mean we stop doing the job, just that we do it better, more efficiently, and without losing our best responders in the process.
So, maybe it is time to start changing how we do things. Maybe it is time to look at things from a new perspective. We could heal, help, and harvest a new generation for a stronger, healthier first responder community.