What are we learning 12 months on?

During the pandemic, mental hygiene has become just as important as hand washing. It’s time to disinfect your thoughts and kill the ANTs. As we move into year number two of the pandemic it has become clear that some American’s may be falling victim to automatic negative thoughts or ANTs.
During the pandemic, mental hygiene is just as important as hand washing. It’s time to disinfect your thoughts and kill the ANTs to overcome anxiety, depression, trauma, and grief. ANT is an acronym for —Automatic Negative Thoughts. Daniel G Amen, MD 2020
Over one year into the pandemic while only 50 % of the US population is currently vaccinated with at least the first shot, we are seeing the importance of mental health in managing the pandemic. It is now abundantly clear, that it is because of mental health underpinnings, that the next wave of the pandemic is building. People cannot remain in isolation forever. The indefinite duration of confinement grew insurmountable to enforce and the collective civility toward social distancing and mask wearing became politically untenable for many governors.  People need to socialize, be free to worship, attend weddigs and funerals, even dance in the streets, as we have seen Americans do ever since it “reopened” when state governor’s decried the pandemic under control. And we have paid the price for this. Mental health tends to be the ugly step-child of physical illness in a society that is strongly biased against the emotionally infirm in favor of the medical model of well-being. For one thing, alcohol sales increased 200 percent among Americans coping with loneliness and frustration while in quarantine. There is no doubt that people felt the stress of being cooped up during the first weeks of the pandemic. The quarantine put a strain on sensible behavior and emotional credulity over social distancing, all the while putting ANTs in our heads. In places like India and across Europe where the vaccine roll out has been less successful the infection rate has risen, and given the propagation of variants that have been reported, those who are not yet vaccinated have much to fear. Michael Sefton

Cumulative exposure to stress: The stigma of being human

The impact of cumulative emotional reactions and Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has significant negative impact on law enforcement heartiness, job satisfaction and career success (Polizoti, 2018). Police agencies across the country are looking for ways to mitigate the impact of accumulated stress associated with exposure to the worst of the worst of all human experience. “Arguably, everything from unattended death, domestic violence, child abuse, and a fatal motor vehicle crash may show up on the call board of any dispatcher on any day or night.” Sefton, 2014. There is no doubt that police officers and first responders are exposed to experiences that are well outside of normal human experience. On top of this requirement many officers do not feel supported by the people they serve and worse, the leadership hierarchy within the agency.

Law enforcement agencies are looking for ways to reduce the human cost of the stress and trauma LEO’s experience on the job but eliminating this all together is likely impossible. This “roller coaster” ride is often why we sign up for the police service where one can have hours of boredom sprinkled with seconds of shear terror and exposure to viral human suffering.

It has been said that LEO’s keep their internal conflict and emotions to themselves always in check and under control. Some fear being perceived as weak and feel intimidated by seeking support for the behavioral health needs resulting from the job. Strength in silence is the archaic mantra lurking behind the blue line and may be the underpinning stigma at work. This stereotype has a significant impact on family relationships, work performance, and career longevity. It has changed in the past decade but very slowly and too many officers are suffering.

Just as we have seen in a subset of the returning member’s of the armed forces, LEO’s are taking their own lives as a result of the accumulation of stressful calls year after year coupled with an erosion of coping skills rendering them vulnerable to becoming hopeless, embittered, and angry. On top of that and perhaps most dangerous is a growing mistrust and perceived lack of respect and support from community leaders, citizens, and sometimes department leaders.

Bias refers to having expectations about a class or subset of people based on unrecognized and unsubstantiated prejudice. Among law enforcement there is a perceived threat of reverse bias associated with having an emotional reaction to the law enforcement experience – at least as far as the front line troops are concerned. There is sometimes an negative attribution associated with being on stress-related leave so many officers who need support do not seek help. Over time this takes a toll on officer well-being. The health risks from years of maladaptive coping to on-the-job calls for service can be insurmountable for some leading to substance abuse, depression, heart disease, and PTSD.

The upwelling of professional disdain toward the police and outright lack of support from the public arising from use of force and incidence of fatal officer involved shootings adds to the LEO “disidentification” with the police service. Once an officer has disidentified with the job he or she is vulnerable to a host of professional challenges associated with becoming at risk for career burn out and embittered.

“Pain is lessened by ceasing to identify with the part of life in which the pain occurs. This withdrawal of psychic investment may be supported by other members of the stereotype-threatened group—even to the point of its becoming a group norm. But not caring can mean not being motivated. And this can have real costs.” according to Steele (1999) who studied achievement in African American college students.

Whether one is speaking about academic achievement or career satisfaction and job performance in the police service “disidentification is a high price to pay for psychic comfort” according to Steele (1999).

The reason for this falls back to deeply held bias toward mental illness that cuts across all segments of society. But it hits particularly hard among law enforcement and first responders. This is especially true when a brother officer is silently suffering.

Elevated mental health distress includes suicidal ideation, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. Some LEO’s preferred to seek help from a chiropractor or physiotherapist rather than a clinician or mental health provider” which reveals the true extent of underlying stigma and bias (Berg et al., 2006).

Polizoti, L. (2018) Career resilience and hardiness. LEO presentation. Worcester, MA.
Steele, Claude (1999) Thin ice: Stereotype threat and black college students. The Atlantic Magazine.

Berg et al. (2006). Fighting Police Trauma: Practical Approaches to Addressing Psychological Needs of Officers