The Rise of Embitterment and its Impact on Health

September 2, 2018 Have you ever met someone who appeared chronically angry? Someone who is bitter about everything as if they have been screwed over by the entire world. Embitterment grows out of frustration and the build-up of chronic negativity, perceived helplessness, and resentment over lack of support.  They pay a substantial price for being so embittered and are likely to have chronic health-related consequences such as hypertension, chronic pain, sleep disturbance, substance abuse, risk of cerebral vascular attack, and more. Law enforcement officers develop coping skills early in their career and many are now being taught strategies to avoid becoming embittered and chronically angry over what they encounter and witness over years of policing.
     Research on the impact of high stress lifestyles is supportive of what LEO’s experience over the course of their professional career.  People who grow up in war zones demonstrate a malfunction in their system of arousal marred by hyper vigilance due to perpetual release of stress hormones and the health-related effects.  This is the result of chronic exposure to unpredictable chaos and the changing physiology associated with a lack of personal control and chronic, intermittent threat to life and well-being.  Neuroscientists can now pinpoint the impact of stress on hardwired changes in the brains of people growing up in places without lasting peace and this research approximates the experience of LEO’s who may be bored one moment and in a fight for their lives the next.
    Embitterment has large implication on LEO productivity, career satisfaction, job performance, citizen complaints, and officer health. Mentoring in the field and supervisory support reduce officer isolation and sometimes powerful feelings of negativity that can fester over time. The physical consequences are well documented and raise the specter of work-related injury from stress and untreated traumatic exposure. In Massachusetts an officer with acquired cardiac disease has presumptive work-related debility if he or she is shown to have been healthy when first hired.
     Ostensibly, resilience is the opposite of embitterment. Have you ever worked with someone who rolled with the punches – literally and figuratively?  They can have felony cases dismissed and be nonplussed maintaining a positive attitude and a “better luck next time” belief system.  They cope with a range of career inequities by having a rich family life, a healthy self-concept, and a positive sense of humor.  Resiliency requires positivity and using innate resilient coping strategies.  “By using alcohol to cope instead of resilient thinking one often develops other problems and this can lead ultimately to suicide. Alcohol is often related to suicidal behavior.” according to Leo Polizoti, Ph.D at the Direct Decision Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts. To survive these incidents one needs to have resilience also known as the psychological resources to process the experience with all of its ugliness and to know that you did what was needed with the training and experience you bring to the job every day.
     After a stressful event, your body and mind must return to its baseline calm and ready state so that the officer may again activate and serve in whatever capacity is required without the baggage of the calls gone by.  As this “baggage” builds unfettered the likelihood of a decline in officer job performance grows sometimes exponentially.  “Like anxiety, depression or other stress reactions, it can become pathological when it reaches greater intensity and is accompanied by feelings of helplessness, dysphoric mood, intrusive thoughts, aggression towards others and suicidal ideation towards oneself, withdrawal from others, phobic avoidance of places and persons that can remind oneself of the critical event, or multiple somatoform (physical) complaints” (Hauer, Wessel, & Merckelbach, 2006).
“Beyond the rigors of police work, lie the demands of a personal life, specifically a wife or husband and children. Maintaining a healthy and happy family life is on its own a demanding responsibility. Add these powerful life stressors and demands to the burdens of police work and an officer may begin to feel the weight upon his or her shoulders.” Leo Polizoti, 2018.
     Law enforcement officers work in highly stressful situations and their bodies are exposed to external threats that activate the autonomic nervous system. Many are conflicted over the need for overtime versus the need for family time.  “In times of crisis, fight-or-flight (adrenergic) responses may cause elevated heart rate and blood pressure. This can lead to hypervigilance or a feeling of being on overdrive. If the mission is extended in the case of large-scale disasters, there may be problems with sleeping, changes in appetite, irritability, and impatience. Often, there is profound fatigue caused by long shifts with limited down time and limited space for sleep and relaxation” according to Laura Helfman, M.D. in a 2018 paper on coping and trauma. The longer the mission, the greater the risk of shifting from normal to maladaptive responses.” Helfman, 2018.
     Stress has undeniable impact on all human functioning and public health.  Not enough is being done to infuse knowledge and understanding into the emotional maelstrom created by chronic stress (Sefton, 2014).  Healthy coping and productivity breaks down when this occurs over and over. According to Leo Polizoti, Ph.D., the primary author of the Police Chief’s Guide to Mental Illness and Mental Health Emergencies, “learned resilience leads to reduced stress and psychological hardiness rather than psychological weariness. As the demand for police service becomes more complex, officers must adapt their physical and emotional preparation for service or risk premature career burnout.”

Helfman, L. (2018) How do First Responders Experience and Cope with Trauma. Quarterly Technical Assistance Journal on Disaster Behavioral Health. Volume 14,  Issue 1, Page 14
Linden, M. et al. (2009) Post-traumatic Embitterment Disorder Self-Rating Scale. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy Clin. Psychol. Psychother. 16, 139–147.
Polizoti, L. and Sefton, M. (2018) The Police Chief’s Guide to Mental Illness and Mental Health Emergencies. (In press) Decision Press, Worcester, MA
Sefton, M (2014) Stress: The human cost of Technology. Blog post: https://msefton.wordpress.com/health-psychology/stress-the-human-cost-of-technology/. Taken 8-22-2018

Orders of Protection – Underpinning the Good Safety Plan

Many cases of domestic violence (DV) result in an order of protection being issued.  The protection order is based upon the personal report of the victim which is substantiated by police report and perceived risk and may be implemented 24 hours a day. The approval of a court judge or magistrate  is generally required for its issuance. This order requires that the abuser “stay away” from the victim and is based on the totality of circumstances presented to a district or family court judge at the time of arrest.  Police officers use report narratives to construct the details of the protection from abuse (PFA) or restraining order (RO).  Different states utilize differing nomenclature to define what is the substantive court directive that provides the underpinning of a victim safety plan. They are granted on an emergency basis for 24-48 hours and are sustained for up to 6-12 months following a review by the court.
What happens between the time the initial PFA is granted and when the victim is expected in court to chronicle his or her intimate partner violence is often a mystery.  Victims often fail to show for the initial hearing that allows the initial PFO to go away.  Why? In some cases they become intimidated by their violent spouse who has made promises to straighten up and fly right. This is the core dynamic of intimate partner violence and it is well-described in these pages and elsewhere.
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“Domestic violence is not random and unpredictable. There are red flags that trigger an emotional undulation that bears energy like the movement of tectonic plates beneath the sea.” according to Michael Sefton (2016).
In all states a protection order requires that no contact be made via telephone, through acquaintances, text messaging, or in person.  By violating a PFO requires that law enforcement make an arrest of the person in violation. This information becomes the grist of the underlying risk to the victim.  The marginalized abuser sometimes becomes obsessed with his loss of control and may take to cyber stalking in order to keep tabs on his partner.  As just mentioned any violation of the protection order renders the abuser subject to arrest and should require a high amount of bail before he is released from jail.  This is rarely the circumstance as violators easily make bail ironically blaming the victim as the root cause of the marital strain. These are the hubristic remarks of building tension and frustration described in the cycle of violence.
It is important to note that social media has given abusers extra means to “creep” into the privacy of estranged spouses without detection.  It played a significant role in the domestic violence homicide according to the psychological autopsy report of the Dexter, Maine homicide/suicide in 2011 (Allanach, R. et al., 2011).  Social media may also be used to intimidate and unfairly influence friends and family.
Bail amounts differ from state to state and sometimes even from county to county within a single state. The amount of bail should be high enough to inconvenience and deter the abuser from being tempted to coerce and manipulate his victim and family.  Most often the bail amount is low and inconsequential to the abuser who often has no criminal record.  However, changes in bail conditions and risk assessment must be integrated into orders of protection – especially when a single abuser has had more than one PFO filed against him. This sets the stage for measuring the degree of violence one might expect as the abuser becomes further marginalized and feels his control over the victim begin to collapse.  “Someone with a history, particularly a continuing history of violence, can be presumed to be dangerous.” according to Frederick Neuman, MD.
The order of protection belies the fundamental safety plan that is crafted by police and domestic violence experts and is designed to prevent further victim injury or death.

Sefton, M. (2016) Blog post: DVH in MA: 4 year old child begs his father.  https://msefton.wordpress.com/2016/10/02/dvh-in-ma-4-year-old-child-begs-father-not-to-murder-his-mother/. Taken 8-20-2018

Allanach R. et al., (2011). Psychological Autopsy of June 13, 2011, Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicides and Suicide: Final Report 39 (Nov. 28, 2011), http://pinetreewatchdog.org/files/2011/12/Dexter-DVH-Psychological-Autopsy-Final-Report-112811-111.pdf.

Neuman, F. (2012) Is it possible to predict violent behavior? https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/fighting-fear/201212/is-it-possible-predict-violent-behavior?collection=113345

The Agony of Releasing a Murderer

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Albert Flick is led out of the courtroom following his initial appearance in the Androscoggin County Court house in Auburn Wednesday morning. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)
 
There is no pleasure when a parole board must decide on whether to release or not a man who violently murdered his wife. Especially the case of Albert Flick – arrested in Westbrook, Maine in 1979 and convicted of the brutal murder of his wife. Mr. Flick asked not to be released perhaps out of some inner sense of foreboding and primal instinct of things to come – if such a thing exists among killers. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing -underneath he is ravenous.
Fast forward to Sunday July 15, 2018 Albert Flick who had been released from jail for committing the violent murder of his wife again killed a woman with whom he had an infatuation. He had been stalking her for weeks prior to her murder.  He followed she and her two little boys from place to place in Lewiston, Maine.  She had an inner sense that he was dangerous but was fearful of going to the police at the time of her death. Yet she had spoken to friends about her worries. What may have prevented the victim from calling police when she first noticed Mr. Flick was stalking her? Why was she fearful of the very people charged with preventing violence? What may have happened if she had notified the officer on her beat? Or a police officer walking in her neighborhood?
The answer is that Mr. Flick would have had a visitor that in all likelihood would derail his infatuating behavior. If not, he would have had is parole revoked as it should have rightfully been done.  I was a police officer in Westbrook, Maine when Flick murdered his wife in 1979. I was on duty when the call came in to the station but as a junior officer was not dispatched to the scene. The scene was horrific even by todays standards of violence. Nevertheless, the case is well know to me as I later worked closely with the arresting investigator Ron Allanach and his partner Wayne Syphers – both exemplary career law enforcement officers.  Ron went on to earn his doctorate in counseling and was Chief of Police for 8 years at the end of his career in Westbrook. Both men were instrumental at convicting Albert Flick.  Flick is shown in the 1979 photograph below being taken to court in Portland by Detective Syphers who made a heroic effort to save the life of the victim. The female victim ultimately died in his arms in 1979.  Albert Flick should have remained in jail for life and many in law enforcement who remember the case are agonizing over  his release after serving 20 years.
“Clearly, probation is not working. … At this point, I just don’t know what else to do. I think there’s a huge safety risk to women and society when it comes to Mr. Flick.” Prosecutor Katherine Tierney, 2010
WayneSyphers and Flick
Albert Flick with Det. Wayne Syphers (right) at Cumberland County, Maine trial in 1979
Flick was known for a proclivity for violence against women. After being released from his murder conviction Flick was arrested for chasing an intimate partner with a screw driver with intent to due harm. There would be other charges and other arrests that were red flags for the underlying anger he felt toward woman.  A group of us will reach out to Mr. Flick in the coming months for a sit down.
The female victim, Kimberly Dobbie, in this 2018 Lewiston, Maine case had felt threatened by Flick. Her instincts were keen as it related to his potential for violence against her. But she told only her friend and no one else.  She was 30 years his junior and had spurned his love interest. She had twin children who were present during the despicable killing and are traumatized having witnessed their mother’s death. In his book “The Gift of Fear“, Gavin deBecker espoused the value of trusting our primal instincts as they pertain to our personal safety.
Flick had been in and out of prison for crimes involving intimate partner violence and intimidating female witness who were courageous in coming forward against Flick. At some point he himself reported asked to be kept in custody.
“You can’t say that nothing can be done, because nothing will be done,” said Michael Sefton, a former Westbrook police officer who now works in Massachusetts for the New Braintree Police Department.
Keep Me Current, 2011
The judge who authorized Flick’s release is retired from the bench but his stated opinion for releasing Flick was that “he had aged-out and was no longer criminally inclined” yet he himself asked to remain behind bars.  Why?
Technically this was true, Flick no longer fit the stereotypic picture of a repeat murderer.  He was older and physically growing infirm.  Most men who commit domestic violence homicide do not recidivate once released from prison especially those over the age of 70.  While researching a case of family murder-suicide, I have spoken to a man who served 18 years for strangling his wife who was released and became a model citizen and amateur photographer. He published a book of his photographs that were quite good – even sensitive.  This man was not a risk and was somewhat younger than Flick.  So by all reasonable judicial standards Flick was considered a low-risk release. Probation would keep him in line.  Not so fast, information was available from his first release that included repeated violence against women raising a red flag of potential violence in the future.  Plus the horrific nature of the stabbing murder in 1979 was not a factor in the release conditions once he had served his time. Finally, there is also information that suggested that Mr. Flick did not seek his own release as reported above. He may have been institutionalized with the simmering anger he himself expected would again leach from his despicable soul.