INTRODUCING A NEW COLUMN AND COLUMNIST
959 words – MR
Introducing a new columnist
by Stephanie Conn
As I reflect upon my childhood as a police officer’s daughter, a sense of pride wells up within me. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t easy but it was all I ever knew. When I entered the police world myself at the age of 24 it was a small step from the world I already knew.
I started as a dispatcher/call taker/911 operator. I thought it was a good way to make a dollar while getting my psychology degree. It also gave me real world material to reflect on as I was studying the human mind. After three years behind the console, I itched to get on the other side of the radio – to the streets where the action was. My dad hoped I would become a psychologist or lawyer – anything but a police officer – so when I told him I was joining the department, he had his concerns. They were overshadowed by his pride as he pinned on my badge at the academy graduation.
My years as a police officer were filled with excitement, paperwork, surprise, fear, paperwork, lasting friendships and more paperwork. My department suffered the loss of two police officers while I was there. When the first was shot, officers swarmed the hospital waiting area. I remember watching the peer support team members connecting with grieving members and thinking, “Why am I not a peer support team member?” I wanted to help others while they were grieving, even if I was also grieving. This was the impetus for my volunteering with peer support.
I spent the next year connecting with officers doing proactive training for the team, police recruits and their families. I felt like I was settling into the position nicely and serving others – then came the death of the next officer. This was a gut-wrenching experience because it was yet another senseless death of a brother in blue. I no longer felt satisfied with the level of support I was able to offer grieving officers. I needed to – ached to – be able to do more.
Not only had we, as a department, suffered the loss of these officers but we found ourselves plagued with other problems such as alcohol abuse, marital problems, financial difficulties, excessive force, anxiety, overwhelming stress, burnout and cynicism. I was asked to research and present my findings on these problems, which seemed to be worsening.
I returned to university to study counselling psychology, focusing on the issues affecting police officers and their families. I relocated to Vancouver and had to make a choice: continue my counselling psychology program to support police as I intended to, or leave the program and return to policing. I had been straddling the fence between being a cop and being a counsellor for some time. I couldn’t do both in my new environment. I jumped off the fence in the direction of being a counsellor – a cop counsellor.
In the course of earning my counselling psychology degree, I made a point of focusing on issues impacting police and researched secondary traumatic stress (STS). What I found was alarming. I knew officers needed support during major critical incidents, which was what brought me here to begin with. What I wasn’t prepared to find was that the lesser traumas, sometimes called small t’s, were the real culprits behind their suffering. The small t’s add up to big problems if not addressed.
I interviewed front line officers to determine what helped, hindered and might have helped them to cope with their exposure to STS. Officers reported proactive education helped them to manage it and they wanted more training and better access to information and support.
This brings me to where I am today, writing this column. I am trying to get the information out there – to let officers know there are steps they can take to promote their resilience. Consider the saying “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Most of us think about this with respect to our physical but not our mental health. Why would your mental health be any different? What about your relationships? Taking steps toward strengthening them before they become strained just makes sense. Think of it as tuning up your car before it starts making noises indicating something is wrong.
Each month I will present information to help you build, maintain or rebuild your psychological armour to have a bulletproof mind. I hope you find information that motivates you to inspect your armour and take a proactive approach to maintaining it. I promise to keep it practical and refrain from using psychobabble. I am happy to be a part of
Conn is an experienced therapist, researcher and educator. She has researched and provided evidence-based support services to emergency services employees to promote their well-being on and off the job. She began researching these issues while working as a dispatcher/call taker for three years and continued during her nine years as a police officer. She was a member of the critical incident stress management team, offering support to police employees and family members. She recently co-authored
She is continuing her research in career issues and employee wellness by pursuing doctoral studies at UBC. Her experience as a researcher is complemented by more than 10 years as an educator on such topics as stress management, substance abuse awareness, crisis intervention, cultural diversity and maintaining work-life balance. She offers counselling to individuals and couples at her private practice, Conn Counselling and Consulting (www.conncounsellingandconsulting.com), and also provides training to police agencies.