Holding the Line
Organizational culture or occupational trauma?
April 5, 2021 By Michelle Vincent
When we experience trauma as a result of our police work, we need to consider
the weight of the impact from the incident itself and the weight of the impact from the reaction of our organization.
There is an ongoing silent debate about whether the organization or the occupation contributes greater to the mental health decline of our members subsequent to trauma. While occupational trauma is unavoidable, organizational trauma, arguably, is avoidable. As we work towards foundational solutions in an effort to truly shift how we work through mental health in policing, as well as within other first responder professions, this is key. The power of culture stems from ideology consisting of commonly held values and beliefs. Police culture may vary from organization to organization, depending on size, the composition of the community we serve as well as our assigned duties. However, there are many similarities and themes that appear to be common amongst most organizations.
Such themes include our innate impulse to armchair-quarterback ourselves in every situation we deal with. We adhere to a chain of command in a somewhat paramilitary format, likely as a result of the dangerous environment we are exposed to on a daily basis. We are dependent and rely on our partners to support us on our calls for service, which may sometimes be crucial to the outcome of the call. Hearing “I’ve got your back, or your six,” can elicit great feelings of support, however that support may come at a great cost when judgment is involved. “Why didn’t my partner react the way I expected them to during this crisis incident?” is one example. Sharing these thoughts and opinions with others in our platoon, whom likely have no idea of what occurred other than over the radio (or have no idea what the rational was behind that particular reaction), is often unproductive and can cause tension between members.
When we choose to informally “debrief” a call with colleagues, we have an opportunity to either approach it with curiosity and/or kindness. We may consider what that person may have perceived in that moment, with an understanding that we will never may generate feelings of isolation from the rejection of support from others. It’s the result of internal dialogue and thinking that, because we do the helping, we should not need help ourselves. I certainly experienced this during times of mental health vulnerability and it certainly did not come from an egotistical place. In fact, it was the exact opposite. For me, it came from a place of not wanting to let those most important to me (my brothers and sisters in blue) down. We know it is not healthy to judge our teammates and wrack our minds for solutions for healthy organizational cultural shifts, but can’t help thinking judgmental thoughts, especially about ourselves. Ultimately, this moves us farther away from out goal.
We have made great strides in normalizing the need for mental healthcare as police officers and civilians. Making it every day conversation on your platoon is a powerful way to walk the talk. Casually chatting about the challenges many of us experience in finding that great fit in a mental health provider, whether it be for ourselves or for a family member, may improve mental health literacy across the board. This will allow police and civilians to feel comfortable sharing mental health perspectives without prying or prompting. Checking in personally and following up afterward is key to changing the way we discuss mental health. Mentioning we are “here” for someone if/when needed is no longer enough. Let’s shift our culture by making a commitment to open the door to discussions, both formal and informal, and to provide support.
From an occupational perspective, we experience horrific calls, having to make life-altering decisions in a split second, only to be scrutinized by leaders and outside agencies on whether our choices were proper. We are often only with ourselves as we sit to replay the horror in our minds. We understand that complacency kills, yet we sometimes forget this all fosters an environment overwrought with mental health unwellness.
Shift work, court between nights and the expectation we can function with clarity on duty during these times of physical and emotional exhaustion are also occupational hazards to our mental health. “Well we signed up for all of this, didn’t we?” This is that organizational, cultural, judgmental thought that may contribute to mental health challenges. It’s time to change this thinking.
All of this contemplation is key in understanding how we explore solutions in approaching cultural shifts within our organizations. If we are truly open to finding solutions, we may be willing to explore how we move forward rather than finding accountability in past action. We have an opportunity to shift and change organizational approaches to our reaction to situational trauma. Let’s be the leaders in this area as we bring forth what worked well in a situation, what we would like to change if we had to do it again and collaborate as teammates in supporting member wellness.
Michelle Vincent is a retired York Regional Police officer and the founder of The Haven, Ontario’s first non-profit, inpatient treatment centre exclusive to first responders and uniform personnel. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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