PTSD, biofeedback and preexposure training to lower impact of stress

PTSD is a known reaction to exposure to high stress, life threatening incidents that occur frequently in the careers of members of law enforcement. These are the high stress calls for service that leave a mark. They are the calls that wake you up at night and have the potential to become the traumatic events that can derail job performance. These are calls you think of when responding to an all units – referred to as a “code 3″ response in Maine during my tenure there. These are the calls that even when everything went well, the outcome turned out bad. And that is what is so debilitating and breeds cynicism.

Improving emotional regulation in the career first responder is a key element in officer well-being and career satisfaction. Biofeedback can be useful in shaping the body’s response to high stress calls. It involves decreasing certain brain responses to negative stimuli and is a critical skill for adaptive stress responses. Improved emotion regulation is associated with a decrease in amygdala hemodynamic activity following strongly negative stimuli providing researchers with a neural target that could be manipulated to improve emotion regulation.” Over the career of a law enforcement officer he or she can be expected to experience scores of traumatic calls sometimes more. Having a way to get out in front of the impact of such events using routine defusing or modified debriefing strategies can add to job satisfaction and officer resilience.

The cognitive model of PTSD suggests that the sense of current threat in individuals with PTSD is due to excessively negative appraisals of the trauma and a disturbance of memory of the trauma (Ehlers & Clark, 2000). Meichenbaum contends that SIT helps patients to “reauthor” their personal narrative of the trauma and focus on using coping skills to achieve treatment goals (Meichenbaum, 2019).

What is currently the best EEG intervention for mood and anxiety disorders — changing the alpha-to-theta ratio so that alpha activity is decreased relative to theta in the brain. Importantly, chronic exposure to traumatic scenes and a host of other factors can slowly elevate the sympathetic nervous system so that even routine police encounters can feel like a threat to officer safety and evoke a traumatic reaction.

A cardinal feature of patients with PTSD is sustained hyperactivity of the autonomic sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, as evidenced by elevations in heart rate, blood pressure, skin conductance, and other psychophysiological measures. Accordingly, increased urinary excretion of catecholamines, and their metabolites, has been documented in combat veterans, abused women, and children with PTSD.  Sherin, 2011 Sherin, J, Newmeroff, C (2011). Post-traumatic stress disorder: the neurobiological impact of Psychological trauma. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, September 13 (3)

“There is evidence that humans who are exposed to stress induces the release of dopomine in mesolimbic areas deep within the brain. The limbic system is the center for processing emotion and the minutiae of detail such as sites, smells, and the sound of raw pain and despair officers routinely encounter. These chemicals in turn could play a role in neuromodulation in the HPA axis that regulates the fight-flight mechanism in the brain. Whether or not dopamine metabolism is altered in PTSD remains conjectural, though genetic variations in the dopaminergic system have been implicated in moderating risk for PTSD” Sherin, 2011.

Particularly for stress management, targeting deeply located limbic areas involved in stress processing has paved new paths for brain-guided interventions. I have written about the neurobiology of police work in these pagesSix neurofeedback sessions resulted in significant improvements in measures of emotion regulation, including faster reaction times, in an emotion-regulation testing version of the classic Stroop paradigm. This finding indicates that participants got better at focusing on task-related information and ignoring irrelevant emotional stimuli. 

This finding indicates that participants got better at focusing on task-related information and ignoring irrelevant emotional stimuli. Furthermore, alexithymia scores (difficulties in cognitively processing emotion) were decreased relative to the participants’ score before training. Alexithymia scores increased in the control group of soldiers who did not receive any training, suggesting that the intervention prevented certain issues from developing according to Young, 2019.

What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychological treatment that has been demonstrated to be effective for a range of problems including depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug use problems, marital problems, eating disorders and severe mental illness. Numerous research studies suggest that CBT leads to significant improvement in functioning and quality of life. In many studies, CBT has been demonstrated to be as effective as, or more effective than, other forms of psychological therapy or psychiatric medications.

It is important to emphasize that advances in CBT have been made on the basis of both research and clinical practice. Indeed, CBT is an approach for which there is ample scientific evidence that the methods that have been developed actually produce change. In this manner, CBT differs from many other forms of psychological treatment. CBT is based on several core principles, including:
  1. Psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking.
  2. Psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior.
  3. People suffering from psychological problems can learn better ways of coping with them, thereby relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives. Source: APA Div. 12 (Society of Clinical Psychology)

“Further, administration of the centrally acting β-adrenergic receptor antagonist propranolol shortly after exposure to psychological trauma has been reported to reduce PTSD symptom severity and reactivity to trauma cues.” Sherin, 2011 Stress inoculation is the best that first responders can hope for coupled with reliable self-care and mindfulness. _______________________________ Young, K.D. Neurofeedback for soldiers. Nat Hum Behav 3, 16–17 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0493-2 . taken April 7, 2021

Meichenbaum, D. (2004) Stress Innoculation Training. Taylor and Francis.

Ehlers, A., & Clark, D. M. (2000). A cognitive model of posttraumatic stress disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 38, 319–345.

Keynan, J.N., Cohen, A., Jackont, G. et al. Electrical fingerprint of the amygdala guides neurofeedback training for stress resilience. Nat Hum Behav 3, 63–73 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0484- 

Sherin, J, Newmeroff, C (2011). Post-traumatic stress disorder: the neurobiological impact of Psychological trauma. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, September 13 (3)

Sefton, M (2019) The Neurobiology of Police Work. Linked In post May 2-2019

Law enforcement suicide: Using the psychological autopsy for questions of line of duty deaths

Two Capitol police officers have taken their own lives since the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. This information came after the two officers spent 5 hours fighting the insurrectionists sometimes in hand to hand combat. Jeffrey Smith, a D.C. Police officer, and Capitol Police Officer Howard Liebengood both “took their own lives in the aftermath of that battle” according to an article in Politico on January 27, 2021. A third officer, Brian Sicknick died during the insurrection and his manner of death has not yet been officially determined. Some reported seeing Officer Sicknick being struck in the head with a fire extinguisher during the riot.

First responder suicide is generally not considered a line of duty death and as such, fails to yield the honor given to officers who die in shoot outs or other direct line of duty incidents. And deaths by suicide do not bring family members the death benefits they deserve. Two police officers have died by suicide after confronting rioters at the Capitol that were sent by Commander in Chief Donald Trump. This fact was brought forth by House Impeachment Managers during Trump’s second impeachment trial recently completed.These men must be afforded the honor and benefits provided to any surviving spouse of a line of duty death because that is why these men died. 

The juxtaposition of these facts cannot be ignored. Every one of the hundreds of police officers put their lives on the line as a result of the former president’s truculent narcissism. It would be a dishonor to the men who gave their lives by denying this causal underpinning of their deaths. Suicide by law enforcement officers exceeds the number of officers who die in in gun fights, car accidents, on-duty heart attacks, attacks by citizens, calls for domestic violence, and other police calls for service. “This fact thrust these most private of acts into the national spotlight and made clear that the pain of Jan. 6 continued long after the day’s events had concluded, its impact reverberating through the lives removed from the Capitol grounds” as written in a recent Washington Post report. 

There are things that must be done when law enforcement officers die as a direct result of the the calls they take and the trauma they experience that directly results in their death. Neither of these officers would have died if they had not jumped into the crisis taking place at the U.S. Capitol. Both men were solid members of the Capitol and Metropolitan Police Departments and had no history of behavioral health claims. A transparent psychological autopsy would show the factors that triggered the terminal events leading to each man’s death. For their part, members of Congress spoke highly about the three police officers who died as a result of the riot.

In the days that followed, Erin said, her husband, Capitol officer Jeffery Smith seemed in constant pain, unable to turn his head. He did not leave the house, even to walk their dog. He refused to talk to other people or watch television. She sometimes woke during the night to find him sitting up in bed or pacing. Her husband was found in his crashed Ford Mustang with a self-inflicted gun shot wound that occurred on his way to the job.

Peter Hermann Washington Post 2-12-2021

Rioters swarmed, battering the officers with metal pipes peeled from scaffolding and a pole with an American flag attached, police said. Officers were struck with stun guns. Many officers were heard screaming into their radios “code-33” the signal for “officer needs help” and usually a signal bringing an “all hands” response to the scene of the emergency. Situations like this send chills down the spine of officers responding to calls for help – some are injured in car crashes racing to back-up officers in danger. It is always hoped that when the call for help goes out that there will be enough manpower to push back on the crowd, however large. In this case, the crowd far exceeded the number of LEO’s available for duty. 

 The psychological autopsy is a single case study of a death event that serves to uncover the psychological causes of death. This study would answer these questions and establish an understanding of worst case scenario of frontline exposure to trauma and possibly offer insight into underlying history that may have been anticipated and stopped. When law enforcement officers take their own lives this careful analysis of the hours and days preceding their time of death is essential. “From this information an assessment is made of the suicide victim’s mental and physical health, personality, experience of social adversity and social integration. The aim is to produce as full and accurate a picture of the deceased as possible with a view to understanding why they killed themselves.This would answer the question as to whether or not the deaths may be considered to be line of duty, as they must. Psychological autopsy is probably the most direct technique currently available for determining the relationship between particular risk factors and suicide” Hawton et al. 1998

I have proposed a Behavioral Health initiative in conjunction with changes in police policy and transparency that has been the central posit of social clamor since the death of George Floyd this summer. The International Association of Chief’s of Police (IACP) has a broad-based Mental Wellness program it is reporting on its website that highlights the importance of this kind of support. “The IACP, in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA)’s VALOR Initiative, is customizing a program specifically designed to help officers and agencies by enhancing resilience skills. The cost of such a program will reap rewards in the form of career longevity, officer well-being, officer morale, quality of community policing, and greater faith and trust in law enforcement in general.

This investigation is an individually designed case study that elicits a broad range of factual data regarding the antemortem behavior of a decedent in the immediate day or days leading up to the suicide. In this case, what are the events that transpired in the days before the two Capitol police officers took their own lives? The fact is that both men were exposed to incidents and participated in protecting the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Both men were engaged in hand to hand combat.  It is known that the insurrection resulted in the death of a fellow officer and the deaths of 4 other people engaged in violent mayhem in which these men and hundreds others may have been killed. Both men believed the insurgency was potentially deadly to them or their fellow officers. The psychological autopsy is especially important when first responders and essential workers are involved and die soon after. When LEO’s and first responders are put in fear of death or see other officers being placed in the direct line of fire, are vastly outmanned, and have no way in which to stop an attack, they are at high risk for the “hook” that comes from an acute stress reaction and over time, becomes a monkey on the backs of so many fine men and women.  Michael Sefton, Ph.D. 2018 Direct Decision Institute, Inc.


Hawton, K., Appleby, L., Platt, S., Foster, T., Cooper, J., Malmberg, A. & Simkin, S. (1998). The psychological autopsy approach to studying suicide: a review of methodological issues. Journal of Affective Disorders 50, 269–276.

IACP (2021) Officer Resilience Training Conference https://www.theiacp.org/projects/law-enforcement-agency-and-officer-resilience-training-program, Blog post taken February 13, 2021

The Psychological Impact of Pandemic: The best and worst of human behavior

On November 11, 2020, I presented a program on the Psychological Impact of Pandemic sponsored by Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital.  It was well attended with a mix of nurses, midlevel practitioners, social workers, and nonclinical participants. The program was presented on the zoom platform. I am now going to put to paper my perspective narrative espoused in my 90 minute presentation.  I had also invited members of law enforcement with whom I have regular contact as the information was drawn from the growing literature on mental resilience and its positive impact on coping with exposure to trauma.

ca-times.brightspotcdn

According to the PEW Research Group, 4 in 10 Americans know someone who has either been afflicted with Coronavirus or someone who has died from the virus. My mother was infected with the Coronavirus in mid April in the same nursing facility where I lost my 93-year old aunt in the first wave of the virus in May, 2020. My mother survived the virus but it has taken a significant toll on her physical and cognitive well-being. We were not permitted to see my mother during her illness and my aunt was alone on May 1 when she succumbed to the virus. Both living on a nursing unit that was doing its best to render compassionate care under extraordinary conditions, in some cases with nurses, aides, and therapists working round the clock. Both of these loved ones received extraordinary care. Nursing units across the country suffered unimaginable loss of life including over 70 elderly veterans at the Soldier’s Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts.  We all saw the images of refrigerated trucks holding victims in expiated purgatory hidden behind hospitals. It may bring horror to those who lost loved ones and never saw them again.

I saw my mother on November 12. She looked frail and disheveled.  The nurse practitioner had ordered a blood draw out of concern for her physical well-being. She is 92 and may have a blood disorder. They had three staff people hold her in place to obtain the small sample of blood which took over and hour.  She has always had difficulty having her blood drawn and this has gotten worse as she has gotten older. She fought and screamed from pain, and fear, I was told. It was torture for all those involved, including me.

Little did anyone realize the extent of disease, contagion, and trauma this pandemic would bring to the United States and the world. We waited in February and March with curiosity and vague forewarning from our leadership. We were led to believe the virus would dissipate once the weather became warm and it would essentially vanish in the heat of summer. This did not happen and public health officials at CDC and WHO were spot-on in terms of the contagious spread of covid-19 and the deaths it would bring.  Now with the approach of winter our fear borders on panic.

This virus poses significant stress and emotional challenges to us all. It raises the specter of both an overwhelmed medical system as well as increasing co-occurring emotional crisis and a collapse in adaptive coping, for many. Sales of alcohol went up 55 percent in the week of March 21 and were up over 400 percent for alcohol delivery services. Americans were in lock-down and many made poor choices. The link between stress and physical health and well-being is well documented and will be a factor as American’s find their way free from the grip of Covid-19. 

“The human mind is automatically attracted to the worst possible case, often very inaccurately in what is called learned helplessness”

Martin Seligman

Whenever human beings are under stress they are going to utilize skills they have learned from other times when they felt under threat. Chronic stress has been shown to have negative effects on health including autoimmune functions, hypertension, inflammatory conditions like IBS, and pain syndromes. Many find it impossible to think about anything but the worst case scenario. Marty Seligman described the concept of “catastrophizing” that is an evolutionarily adaptive frame of mind, but it is usually unrealistically negative.” This leads to a condition known as learned helplessness. In another book, Dr. Seligman writes about learned optimism published in 1990. His cognitive strategies hold true today.

So many use the same coping mechanisms over and over, whether they are effective or not like drinking or gambling to let off steam. These things may help in the short term but can cause further health and social problems later on. They are not adaptive strategies. Stress is unavoidable and the best thing we can do is to understand its physical impact on us and adapt to it in healthy, adaptive ways. Stress raises the amount of cortisol and adrenaline in the body activating the fight-flight response. For many, that meant an uptick in the procurement of spirits in late March to help bring it down. Others think differently. Many began a routine of walking or running or cycling. Regular exercise contributes to reducing stress and when kept in perspective, is an adaptive response to the threat of coronavirus.

Many people in our hospital were afflicted with the virus or some other health concern and became immersed in loneliness and isolation that can lead to disconsolate sadness. It is hard not to be affected by this suffering. Most reviewed studies reported negative psychological effects including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger, according to Brooks, et.al. Lancet 2020. At Whittier, we had many cases of ICU delirium where patients became confused and frightened by healthcare providers wearing PPE including face shields, masks, and oxygen hoods. Many thought they were being kidnapped or that the staff were actually posing as astronauts. This made it hard to help them feel safe and to trust the core staff including doctors, nurses, and rehabilitation therapists.

Michael Sefton

We have had some very difficult cases including a man who found his wife on the floor without signs of life. He fell trying to get to her and both lay there for over 2 days. He was unable to attend her funeral because of his broken hip. We had another man who pushed us to be released from the hospital. He worried about his wife who needed him to assist in her care at home. She has Parkinson’s disease. He was discharged and died shortly after going home. His wife fell while getting ready for his funeral and is now in our hospital undergoing physical rehabilitation and receiving support from our psychology service. The table below is a list of observations from recent admissions:

  • Anxiety – what will my family do while I am here?
  • Deep felt sense of loneliness
  • Depression – loss of support; loss of control 
  • Exacerbation of pre-existing conditions i.e. sleep disturbance, asthma, uncontrolled diabetes, hypertension
  • Slower trajectory toward discharge
  • Debility greater than one might anticipate to diagnosis
  • Subtle triggers to prior trauma – changes in coping, regression, agitation, sleep and mood

What is left for us to do? Have a discussion about what it means to be vulnerable – talk about family members who have been sick with non-covid conditions like pneumonia or chronic heart disease, COPD, etc. It is important to be ready to work from home again such as when schools switched to remote learning this spring and when governors’ call for closing things down. Consider the return of college kids as campus dorms everywhere are likely to close this winter.

The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic killed 50 million people worldwide. 500 million people were infected with the virus that lasted 2 years. The virus was said to have been spread by the movement of troops in WW I. The website Live Science reported that there may have been a Chinese link to the Spanish flu as well due to the use of migrant workers and their transportation in crowded containers leading to what we now call a super spread event. We know a lot more about this virus than we did in March 2020 when it first took hold but we need to understand the eradication will be a herculean task driven by science.

“The coronavirus has profound impact on the emotional stability of people around the world because of its unpredictability and lethality. It evokes fear, and uncertainty as it spreads unchecked. Later, the virus can serve to trigger long hidden memories in a way that can sabotage healthy human development leading to vague anxiety, physical symptoms, loss, and deep despair” said Michael Sefton, Ph.D. during a recent Veteran’s Day presentation. People must have resilient behaviors that foster “purpose in life, to help them survive and thrive” through the dark times now and ahead, according to police consulting psychologist Leo Polizoti, Ph.D. at Direct Decision Institute in Worcester, MA.

 

Covid-19 pandemic: No more important time for resilience

It has been frequently mentioned that exposure to death and uncivilized brutality has an impact on wellness and personal resilience. Not a surprise. Especially in these pages, I make an effort to point out that the cumulative impact of traumatic exposure slowly whittles away one’s capacity for mental health, empathy and emotional efficacy. “There is a relationship between the severity, frequency and range of adverse experiences, and the subsequent impact on mental health.” (Dillon, Johnstone, & Longden, 2012). The conundrum has always come down to just what constitutes a “traumatic” event in childhood? Sometimes there is no single identifiable event that a child brings forth that may later become a trigger of serious emotional instability later in adulthood.

The Covid-19 virus has the potential for creating traumatic events depending upon the degree of exposure and a child’s understanding of the narrative brought forth by parents and other trusted adults during the pandemic. “Over 30 percent of Americans know someone who has died or been infected by the virus. The fallout to mental health from the coronavirus is real. I see it in my own family as nerves become frayed 8 weeks on.” according to the blog post from May, 2020. Trauma informed therapy supports the model of early traumatic experience being the underpinning of many mental health outcomes we see later in life. The biopsychosocoial model identifies physical abuse, sexual abuse, exposure to violence, chronic substance abuse as the substantive reasons for many mental and physical illnesses years later. When we look in the rear view mirror at this virus we will see the litter of emotional wreckage that may leave its hooks in many people around the globe.

Coronavirus. Ise.ac.uk

There is a relationship between the severity, frequency and range of adverse experiences, and the subsequent impact on mental health.

(Dillon, Johnstone, & Longden, 2012).

“The more adverse events a person is exposed to in childhood, the greater the impact on physical and mental health and well-being, with poor outcomes including early death” (Anda, Butchart, Felitti, & Brown, 2010; Anda et al., 2006; Felitti et al., 1998). There was a time in my training that I collected data on childhood fire setting and the psychodynamics of pyromania. I saw 50 children in my fellowship year who came because of fire setting. Without a doubt, there was marked early instability in the childhood homes in these kids that likely germinated into fascination with fire play and perhaps more directly, physically aggressive behavior. Many of the children I assessed were suffering from early onset trauma.

Depending upon the age of onset using fire as an expression of internalized conflict suggests a serious emotional disorder in need of expert assessment and treatment. The interest in fire may appear normal but slowly interest foments in homes where a prevailing emotional vacuum permits – decreased emotional warmth, access to fire starting materials, an absent parent, and frequent domestic violence.  

The inconsistent and unpredictable exposure to violence contributes to excessive and unpredictable behavior as children become adults. Often without direct knowledge of a specific trigger, trauma activates brain circuits that drive fear and emotional behavior including substance abuse, domestic violence, and assault. What is more, these absorb community resources as psychological needs grow.

The coronavirus has profound impact on the emotional stability of people around the world because of its unpredictability and lethality. It evokes fear, and uncertainty as it spreads unchecked. Later, the virus can serve to trigger long hidden memories in a way that can sabotage healthy human development leading to vague anxiety, physical symptoms, loss, and deep despair.

Scott D. Jones of Arlington, MA was a decorated paramedic who responded to a mass homicide in 2000 in which 7 people were shot in an episode of workplace violence. He would go on to kill his second wife and 2 children 14 years after repeated episodes of severe depression and suicidal behavior and domestic violence toward his first wife.  These behaviors were the first red flags of an impending emotional breakdown and terminal rage. Paramedic Jones certainly had problems but the repeated exposure to trauma – especially the mass shooting, activated his fight-flight response intolerably and may have been one of the demons he faced in the end.

Michael Sefton, Ph.D.

Trauma can be triggered by loss due to Coronavirus in two ways. First, by direct contact with a family member who is hospitalized and may have died. Nearly every person who contracted the virus had someone left behind that was worried about their health and eventual recovery. Many had family members who communicated with patient via text messaging and FaceTime – until the loved one could no longer do so. Families relied on the updating calls of first responder nurses, chaplains, social workers, and physicians.

Next, through secondary exposure to similar cases and media coverage that assails efforts at closure and engrains the narrative of fear, guilt and shame by reporting ever increasing case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths survivors are left feeling numb and unable to mourn. Funerals were deferred or could not be held at all as some jurisdictions required the cremation of the remains of coronavirus victims. This has a negative impact on survivor health and well-being often evoking a religious and moral crisis of faith. Survivors have enormous guilt and sadness not being with a loved one who died from the virus or waiting to go for medical at the onset of symptoms. They mourn to mourn and are left feeling numb at the lack of closure.

So whether it is early trauma associated with domestic violence or trauma from repeated exposure to work-related experiences, there is a resilience that resides within most people that guides the rise from being overwhelmed again and again to move forward with courage and hope and feelings of hardiness. These are learned responses to high stress events like a pandemic, but people who are positive thinkers, optimistic, physically fit and emotionally insightful rise up, controlling the lives they lead.

We are offering a zoom platform event entitled The Psychological Impact of the Cornavirus Pandemic: Common sense answers on November 11, 2020 at 5:30 EDT and again in December 10, 2020 at 7 PM. It is free and to be sent the zoom link contact: jswiderski@whittierhealth.com or call the Whittier Rehabiltation Hospital at 508-870-2222 in the U.S. If you plan on attending the 12/10/2020 session please drop me an email at: msefton@whittierhealth.com

Michael Sefton, Ph.D.

Risky business: Faucci will not vote against the virus

The Corona virus has taken over 120,000 American lives since it began its tornadic viral defoliation of senior citizens and others with preexisting conditions in the Spring of 2020. The virus caught Americans unprepared. Everything has changed. The impact of the virus has been like a tsunami wave around the world whose point of origin is the giant industrial city of Wuhan, China. Only now are countries like Brazil being decimated and will soon top the United States in total cases and deaths. Countries who went into immediate lockdown were less effected like Norway, New Zealand, and Canada. The United States waited too long and the virus took hold. 

States here in North America, like Georgia, Arizona, and California, who grew weary of the economic impact of the virus and put forth ambitious reopening plans are now seeing record numbers of cases for the first time. The rate of infection is now being felt among younger citizens without pre-existing infirmity. 

Concerns about negative secondary outcomes of COVID-19 prevention efforts should not be taken to imply that these public health actions should not be taken,” wrote the CDC in one of its briefing statements. Secondary outcomes include the broad range of emotional responses to the virus including depression from loss of loved ones, sudden unemployment, increasing substance abuse, threat of homelessness, anger and existential anxiety from loss of control and loss of purpose in life. “However, implementation of supports should include a comprehensive approach that considers multiple U.S. public health priorities, including suicide prevention.” 

The Psychological toll of pandemic is beginning to show after festering for 3 months. The loss of employment, fear of foreclosure, food shortages, price gouging, addiction, and family conflict each increase the bonifide stress associated with the disease and its impact on the human family. People are becoming rattled. The President understands this and wants to exploit the opportunity by holding a campaign event. Trump brushed off concerns about the virus ahead of his highly anticipated rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, because the number of cases there “is very miniscule”, despite the state’s surging infection of according to a report in the Boston Globe.  Instead, the rally was miniscule and embarrassed the President. 

Top physician and epidemiologist, Anthony Faucci has stated that given the unprecedented and unpredictable nature of Covid-19 that lessening of current social distancing protocols, the use of masks in public, and contact tracing are the best hope for keeping the number of new infections trending downward and to lessen the number of people who die from Covid-19. States who reopen for business without these same precautions are at risk for spikes in cases and more death. Since mid May we have heard from Dr. Faucci less and less as the White House has tried to imply that these concerns are unwarranted and there is “very little of the virus left”. 

President Trump, himself something of a germophobe, has put the needs of the campaign before public health and safety for the sake of his raucous and fervent base. In doing so, he will create a campaign spike that will be measured by new cases and deaths in the next 3-6 weeks time. That is on him and the courts who failed to put limits on the event or cancel it all together in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Saturday June 20. Since February, the president has not taken the pandemic with the kind of leadership that demonstrates his understanding of the virus and respect for those who have succumbed to the disease. 

Meanwhile states like Georgia, Texas, California, and Florida are having thousands of new cases because governor’s of those states have failed to heed the warnings of Dr. Faucci and others. The sudden conflagration of new cases is not the second wave that we have been warned about. The jump in cases correlates with opening businesses without any adherence to protocols. See Tulsa, OK. 

In Florida, the average age of new cases who are hospitalized has dropped to 37-years old. “Those thousands of new cases also signal that, in a week or two, some portion of those people will show up in the hospital, and, about a week after that, a number of them will be dead, even as clinicians have learned more about treating severe Covid-19” said the Boston Globe. For his part, albeit in a greatly reduced capacity, Dr Faucci predicts that a tidal wave of infections is coming unless we do what most medical experts agree starts with respect for social distance recommendations, sanitary hand hygiene, and mandatory quarantine for those who test positive for the virus or are feeling unwell.  

We all know this by now, and it is hard to swallow unless you are among those people who claim to have super immune functioning and refuse orders to wear a mask in public?  Sadly, many will become infected and go on to infect others, unwittingly, all the while they feel nothing and are emboldened by the President who insists the risk of getting the virus at a campaign event is miniscule. Perhaps some readers of this post or others like it do not believe the numbers and chalk it up to fake news.

The emotional impact of the virus has yet to reach its peak. But the racial unrest may be one indication that many are becoming unhinged including a small number of law enforcement officers who lack empathy and understanding of the human effects of stress on unconscious bias and veiled bigotry.  Faucci is getting on the virus. Let us leave the prognosticating to the scientists who are watching the numbers and tracking those who are carrying the virus without symptoms, and may not know it yet. 

 

Benchmark behaviors for healthy police service

Law Enforcement flag

What are the bench-mark behaviors that are reflective of healthy police officer career development? How does a young man or woman go from a squared away academy graduate to an over burdened, irascible and embittered mid-career cop? There is a growing literature that suggests officer behavior and law enforcement culture become instilled in the field training process that takes place immediately following successful formal classroom training. The answer to the question about officer embitterment is a mystery but after spending time with members of law enforcement in Chicago in late March 2019 it begins to become apparent that police officers grow and remain productive in an environment of support: both within the organization and within the community in which they serve.

There are factors intrinsic to law enforcement that detract from career satisfaction like the risk of personal harm or death, career ending injury, time away from family, shift work, and forced overtime. This is a well known set of stressors that officers learn shortly after signing on. But things that may be unexpected include the quasi-military chain of command that often stifles education and innovative thinking, professional jealousy, arbitrary executive orders, the lack of opportunity to participate in policy making, nepotism among non-civil service personnel, and the lack of support for the sacrifice made by the field qualified troops for physical and behavioral health injuries. The period of field training differs from job to job. Field training picks up where the academy classroom education leaves off. Newly minted LEO’s all must undergo field training and are assigned to a single field training officer (FTO) who provides on-the-job training about the realities of frontline police work and closely monitors officer behavior and responses in the field.

Field training usually lasts between 12-18 weeks and was first initiated in San Jose, CA in 1972 according to research published in 1987 by McCampbell of the National Institute of Justice at DOJ (1987). “The primary objective of the Field Training and Evaluation Program (FTEP) is to ensure that all probationary police officers receive optimal field training, predicated upon staffing the Field Training Officer position with qualified officers, and to ensure through proper training and evaluation that only competent, motivated, and ethical individuals become Chicago police officers” as published in the Chicago PD Field Training Program and Evaluation Standards (2018). Field training officers have specific training in mentoring with an understanding of the demands of “street work” and the transition from classroom recruit to patrol officer. The FOR training process lasts several weeks as seasoned veterans learn how to be mentors and evaluation the training needs of individual probationary officers. 

The selection of FTO’s differs from department to department and has implication on long-term officer success. Attrition rates exceed 25 % under the FTO’s leadership and tutelage in many agencies. FTO’s can be expected to experience training fatigue and should be permitted time between assignments. “Dworak cautioned about agencies falling into situations in which they over-work their FTOs, resulting in diminished quality of work, and subsequently, decreased value delivered to the recruit being instructed” Wyllie, 2017

“The FTO is a powerful figure in the learning process of behavior among newly minted police officers and it is likely that this process has consequences not only for the trainee but for future generations of police officers that follow.” Getty et al. (2014) There is little standardization of training protocols aside from FTO catechizing war stories day after day with tales from the street followed by endless inquiry over possible decisions based on department protocol as the sometimes defiant FTO sees fit.

“New officers can be taught when to legally arrest and use force, but the academy cannot instill in each trainee the breadth of intangible, community, value-based decision-making skills that are necessary to manage unpredictable incidents in varying situations.” Getty et al. (2014)

FTO’s are closely monitored by the department training hierarchy and are required to provide daily observation report as to the demonstrated progress of probationary police officers toward developing competence in over 10 areas of police-related duties including decision making, judgment, court testimony, use of force, etc. At the end of each 28-day cycle FTO’s submit a detailed review of progress and potential deficiencies that arise. In Chicago, IL a probationary police officer (PPO) must complete a minimum of 3 28-day cycles with an FTO. It is known that FTO’s help to instill the police culture in PPO’s including policing by the book and prevailing beliefs and attitudes as they exist within individual agencies. I strongly believe that FTOs play a role in reinventing the police service and lowering the stigma associated with behavioral health and response to exposure to trauma.

Job satisfaction is greatest soon after the law enforcement officer is taken off field training and designated “field qualified”. Following the 12-18 week field training officers remain on probationary status for up to 2 years from date of hire. There is some thinking that FTO behavior rubs off on PPO’s and can impact career identity including misconduct later on long after field training has ended. Officer resilience depends upon solid field training with adequate preparation for tactical encounters, legal and moral dilemmas, and mentoring for career development, job satisfaction, and long-term physical and mental health.

Chicago Police Department (2018) FIELD TRAINING AND EVALUATION PROGRAM http://directives.chicagopolice.org/directives/data/a7a57be2-1294231a-bf312-942c-e1f46fde5fd8c4e8.html taken March 29, 2019.

Wyllie, D. (2017) Why the FTO is one of the most important police employees. Police One https://www.policeone.com/police-products/continuing-education/articles/338249006-Why-the-FTO-is-one-of-the-most-important-police-employees/ Taken March 30, 2019 Sun, I. Y. (2003a). A comparison of police field training officers’ and nontraining officers’ conflict resolution styles: Controlling versus supportive strategies. Police Quarterly, 6, 22-50. Getty, R, Worrall, J, Morris, R (2014) How Far From the Tree Does the Apple Fall? Field Training Officers, Their Trainees, and Allegations of Misconduct Crime and Delinquency, 1-19. McCampbell, M. S. (1987). Field training for police officers: The state of the art. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

At these times: Still words to live by… from 2015

Chief Bert DuVernay on right photo by Susie Mullican
Take care of yourselves, rest as much as you can, read good books, sing loud songs (when you’re alone…would be best) and read a poem now and then”  Ann Sefton, 2015


These were the words of Ann Sefton in a Holiday card sent to my wife and I and are among the best advice I have ever received from my mother or anyone else.  I think they are worthy and spoken from the heart and I intend to share them with anyone who will listen.  The kindness and wisdom in the words struck me as a reminder of the joy and simplicity I seek in my life. Those words along with the espoused words of David Trimble, Ph.D. are beliefs that foster greater self-awareness, self-compassion, firm authority, integrity, and coherence to my life. Here’s to a great New Year! Let’s pray for the end of the Coronavirus and return of our society as we know it. April- 2020 Just an update: my mother Ann is now in memory care at the Bethany Healthcare in Framingham, MA. She introduces me proudly as her husband. My mother continues to experience joy on a daily basis and is receiving excellent care at Bethany. She is resilient and happy and will rest and sing loud songs. She has made friends. She still enjoys election coverage but must wait for now. I have not been able to visit for 3-4 weeks because of the risk of transmitting the virus. Meanwhile, Chief DuVernay recovers from several medical procedures and is on the mend. We wish him Godspeed as he and his wife Teresa plan a long-awaited westward move into shared retirement and grand-parenting. Because of the social distancing mandate due to Covid-19, I regret that I may not have the chance to say goodbye properly to Bert and Theresa. That would make me very sad and put an end our regular ‘Lunch with the Chief’ meetings where many former officers come together and shoot the “you know what” and share time together over lunch and remember our times together. The photograph shown is to recognize Chief Bert DuVernay on the anniversary of his retirement from the New Braintree Police Rep in 2015.  Read The shared words and share them with someone you care about.

Positive Policing and Purpose in Life

Purpose in life has been introduced as benefiting people, including law enforcement officers, to find a positive sense of purpose and personal satisfaction in their work product and in their lives. It was originally espoused by Viktor Frankl in 1946. Frankl, a physician, survived the German concentration camps and the deliberate extermination of 6 million Jews during WW-II. His wife and entire family were killed at Auschwitz and Dachau. How could he possible find purpose and meaning in life after this horrific experience. In the book Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in 1946, Victor Frankl shares the experience of seeing hundreds of people herded off to their extermination. People and members of his immediate family were horrifically gassed and sent to mass graves. Frankl’s theory holds that “there are three primary human capabilities, or, in his words, noological possibilities: self-detachment, self-transcendence, and the ability to “spiritually be in touch” with something or someone independent of spatio-temporal dimensions” according to McGann (2016) who reviewed Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning.
Officer well-being is essential for career longevity. It becomes apparent that police officers grow and remain productive in an environment of support: both within the organization and within the community in which they serve. These attributes build a sense of personal meaning and career purpose. Leo Polizoti, Ph.D.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl described the daily demoralizing prisoners underwent both physically and psychologically. Survivors of the horrific images at concentration camp Auschwitz began to find meaning in their forced labor – even humor along with camaraderie. Many of us glean a significant sense of well-being from what we do personally and professionally. Most cops derive great personal meaning and purpose from the job of police officer at least for the first 3-5 years. Law enforcement officers’ derive much of their identity from the work they do on a daily basis and can experience wide ranging stress from call to call. As such, it has become well-known that police work requires special understanding of one’s community and a positive sense of personal responsibility, well-being and resilience for career success and hardiness (Polizoti, 2018).
Our tour guide at the West Bank in Israel in 2019 – Rami Nazzali found great purpose in teaching visitors about the plight of Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip – He strongly believes the plight of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank are fighting for purpose and meaning in their lives. Rami Nazzali writes for The NY Times.
Purpose in life refers to an underlying belief that what you do for work has importance and purpose on a larger scale. Moreover, to diminish oneself as a result of career embitterment runs a risk of the erosion of purpose and loss of group membership. That is when one becomes marginalized and loses his purpose and the “why” for living. Viktor Frankl believed that once gone the purpose of life and the will to live cannot be restored. Mark Dibona previously was a patrol sergeant for the Seminole County Sheriff’s office in Florida, where he supervised nine officers, but the memory of the June morning where he was called upon to resuscitate and dying infant still haunts him. “Other stressful situations include, but are not limited to: long hours; handling people’s attitudes; waiting for the next call and not knowing what the situation will be; and even politics within the department. Then, on top of it all, officers are frequently criticized, scrutinized, and investigated for decisions they make” said Michelle Beshears on the faculty at American Military University. Among police officers between seven percent and 19 percent of police officers experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, compared to 3.5 percent of the general population. A colleague and friend, Sergeant Mark DiBona retired from law enforcement in 2019 has had some difficult times on the job in Florida that effect him in a profound way. He is an strong advocate for law enforcement mental health and suicide prevention. “Until this day,” said Dibona, who admits to having contemplated suicide several times before he began counseling, “I can feel the warmth of that baby on my arm.” A child Mark believed he could save.

Another look at self-destruction in law enforcement and its septic underpinning

This is a photograph produced by Dave Betz who lost his son (pictured) in 2019 to suicide.

Officer Dave Betz lost his son David to suicide in 2019

The code of silence.  It surrounds the culture of police work and always has.  I was once told there are two kinds of people: police officers and ass holes.  If you were not a police officer then you were an asshole.  It was a brotherhood with a formidable blue line that defined the police service as a singular force against all that is bad.  Some have said that law enforcement offers a front seat to the greatest show on earth.  Until what is viewed in the front row cannot be unseen and slowly chips away the veneer of solidarity by threatening the existing culture.  For police officers to have long term career success the organization must come to grips with its membership and relieve them of the stigma they feel that prevents them from coming forward. Who would go for that?

If the organization devalues its rank and file for experiencing the natural, neurobiological reaction to repeated, high lethality exposure to violence and death, then who would join such an organization?  Fewer and fewer applicants are signing on in 2019. If a police officer is emotionally denuded by the job why would he or she step up and break the code of silence and be labeled a “nut case” only to lose his badge, firearm, and police authority?  No one will sign on for that kind of treatment.

Each time a member of the law enforcement community takes his or her own life the unspoken silence becomes a lancing wound to the festering emotional infection that is from repeated exposure to traumatic events. The reappearing wolf in sheep’s clothing cuts his teeth on the souls of unwavering academy graduates now paired with senior field trainers who promise to teach the tricks of the trade. Academy graduates come forth like professional athletes with all the confidence and enthusiasm of an elite athlete.  They need experience and mentoring so they know what they are up against.  I was asked to speak at the annual Society of Police and Criminal Psychology meeting in Scottsdale, AZ in late September, 2019 on the importance of the field training program on long-term officer wellness and career satisfaction.

Country music blared from the car radio as Dave, dressed in pajama pants and a t-shirt, stood over his son and realized he was dead.

Father of 24-year old police officer David Betz, 2019

The psychological autopsy may provide insight into the manner of death and must include prior exposure to trauma.  How many first-in homicide calls had the decedent handled? How many unattended SIDS deaths?  How many death notifications? How many cases of domestic violence where the victim was too frightened to speak about the nightly horrors in the marital home? How many times did he witness the remnants of a violent motor vehicle crash with ejection?  Each time he bears witness to this inhumanity he risks never coming back. Some spouses will say they remember when they lost a husband or wife. “It was after the 4-alarm fire – sifting through the rooms for possible causes and finding the old woman who rented the place in an upstairs bathtub” or “the time the addict threw his newborn son off the 14th floor balcony because his baby mama did not return from work when she was expected.” Many espouse the use of the psychological autopsy as a way of honoring an officer who died by suicide as a means of linking the suicide to their tour of duty. 

High lethality calls must be tracked allowing for paid psychological defusing time in the aftermath of these calls.  Defusing and psycho- education can be provided for the entire group who handled the high lethality call rather than identify a single officer.  Aftermath check-ins and peer support should follow. An officer who begins to exhibit changes in his normal work routine, e.g. increased tardiness, citizen complaints, or substance abuse should be referred for psychological follow-up that is linked to annual performance reviews and recommendations for corrective action.

In truth, the reader may wish to put himself into the position of the first arriving police officers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in a place called Newtown.  In December, 2012, twenty seven people were violently murdered – most were first grade students. I have read the Connecticut State Police report of the Sandy Hook shooting and was left feeling numb and physically sickened. It is over 1000 pages of grueling detail.  Now, when I see TV images of LEO’s running on campus toward the sound of gunshots, I know they must step over the desperate victims, some of whom take their last breath reaching for a pant leg or a blue stripe or a black boot covered in blood all the while begging to live.

Recruits enter the police service with high hopes of making a difference but quickly learn that their purpose in life is being sucked out of them like embalming fluid moving though the lifeless remains of a brother or sister officer who could endure no more. Coming forth and asking for help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength, resilience, and heroism. There should be no penalty or secondary administrative sanction when an officer comes forth.  They must be provided behavioral health treatment and a pathway to return to the job.  

Police officer suicide impacts police agencies everywhere in America and across the globe. Many officers feel abandoned by their agencies and become marginalized because they struggle with depression, substance abuse, and PTSD after years of seeing the worst life has to offer. It is time to lessen the expectation of shame among the troops who serve communities large and small. No father should be first in at the suicide death of his own son and be expected to stand with a photo and share his story at the same time he remains stoic and brave.

Job satisfaction: Attrition and “exodus” in Seattle

I just finished a grant proposal looking at the effects of biofeedback on depression and embittered in early and mid-career law enforcement officers. A common complaint with retiring officers and many who leave is not being supported by the agency leadership. Embitterment and attrition go hand in hand but a “mass exodus” bespeaks trouble in paradise. I would like to study the effects of physiological biofeedback on LEO depression and emotional embitterment with a goal of reducing suicide with the goal of enhanced officer well-being. This study will not do much to explain the increase of resignations in Seattle but the data speaks for itself. The Emerald City has lost some luster and the trust of its troops.

Police chiefs frequently ask what can we do about officers who are trained and then leave the department after 1-3 years of service? This is a large problem in small and medium-sized departments. A study was published looking at the exit interview data from departing officers in the Seattle PD and what factors contributed to their decision to leave. According to Jason Randz who has a radio show at KTTH in Seattle, the mass exodus is linked to disgust at the city leadership including aggressive city council over site.

Copy of scathing response to exit inquiry

“There are lots of people walking out the door,” an officer explained. “This is a mass exodus. We’re losing people left and right. Why stick around when the City Council doesn’t appreciate you? [These officers are] fleeing the ‘Seattle mentality.’”

It is unlikely that a true mass exodus is taking place as some believe in the great Northwest. All large departments have officer turnover that can cause difficulty for recruiting efforts. In 2019, it has become more difficult to recruit men and women for the police service across the country. The Seattle story cites over three dozen officers who have left or are planning to leave the SPD because of feelings of unhappiness with the city. A true copy of one exit interview is shown above “New strategies will be essential to fill not only the recruitment gaps, but also the tremendous loss of organizational knowledge that will accompany the impending mass retirements. Few would argue that a department full of rookies at every level is what the profession needs, especially if those rookies are from a generation that craves immediate approval and recognition” as described in a paper published in Police Chief Magazine entitled A Crisis Facing Law Enforcement: Recruiting in the 21st Century.

According to Chief Sid Smith, “with the growing public concern over police use of deadly force, this mental health issue presents another challenge for the recruiters and places an added burden upon the mental health professionals retained to more carefully screen all applicants, including military veterans”. In a prior post the topic of protective factors for success in law enforcement are listed but a substantial factor impacting job satisfaction and career hardiness is perceived support from management and city government including members of city council and in some cases strong mayors. In 2014, the Seattle Police Department appointed Kathleen O’Toole, a former Boston Police Commissioner, to lead the agency which was under federal consent decree for cases of alleged excessive force. She resigned in 2017 for personal reasons.