A Personal Account: Mental Health Awareness, Peer Support, and Vicarious Traumatization

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Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Sergeant Christopher J.A. Scallon, MS, Norfolk, Virginia, Police Department ~ 
Originally posted 5/23/16 on the International Association of Chief’s of Police blog  

Law enforcement has found itself adrift within the “perfect storm” of public mistrust, increasingly violent encounters, and the one-dimensional social media soapbox. The struggle to maintain our bearing, for the purposes of establishing some semblance of order and trust amidst such disdain is taking its toll. The vast majority of law enforcement professionals are just that…professional. It is because of these professionals that I am honored to be a part of an internal system tasked with addressing the inherent exposure to trauma by officers experienced on all fronts; peer support.

As a trauma survivor of a deadly force encounter, I can attest to the need for peer support. At the time, no formalized peer support unit existed for me to utilize. However, friends and a strong wife (also in law enforcement) helped me to find my way again. It was during my shooting review board that a respected supervisor pulled me aside and assured me that I would recover and I would eventually use my personal experience to help others.

Challenge Accepted!!! 
The next few years were dedicated to obtaining the academic qualifications, certifications, and revisiting my experiences with the new eyes of a trauma-informed professional. I became a peer for several non-profit organizations and reached out to anyone I knew was involved in a critical incident. Unfortunately, my greatest opposition to providing help was the stigma associated with asking for it. It was clear, I needed to become a champion for change by sharing my uncensored experiences. I requested to teach a block of instruction for all new recruits titled, “Survival Mindset: Preparing for and Learning to Survive Trauma.” Pleasantly surprised, I was met with an overwhelming interest and acceptance of the concepts. A single class evolved into a sought-after presentation to surrounding police academies, and eventually around the country.

Too Much Success? 
Almost immediately, requests to speak with individual officers about finding help and resources began flooding in…it worked!!! I went into overdrive, seeking as many resources available for officers in crisis and vetting the efficacy. I recall a single month when I was helping several officers and began to feel the effects of their trauma. I began falling into the trap of helping beyond my ability. I wish I could say I noticed, but it was my wife who identified my declining mental health. I was becoming distant, fatigued, and frustrated that I was the only one doing anything (far from the truth)!!! I was regressing back to the damaged individual I fought so hard to fix. I had taken on the stress of the officers I was helping and I thought to myself…STOP!!!

Back on Track 
With the help of my wife and my own advice, I reached out for help. I opened up to my wife and I spoke to a close friend and licensed counselor. I needed to understand that desire to help is decidedly different than my ability. Saying “No,” while hard, is an integral part of peer support.

Healthy Peer Support 
Recently, I was working with a local fire department to establish a peer support unit and providing resiliency training. Something a battalion chief said to me stuck. He said, “We mandate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for our fire fighters…mental health PPE is just as important.”

We work in a time where peer support is a critical component of law enforcement, as important as our flashlight, handcuffs, weapon, or ballistic vest. Similarly, if we require our public safety personnel to maintain PPEs before going to work, law enforcement must ensure that peer support unit personnel are provided the proper mental health PPEs.

Resources 
There are numerous local and national support services for first responders. Resources that address suicide, substance abuse, grief, depression, vicarious traumatization, wellness, compassion fatigue…etc., are available. My humble suggestion is that we become students of our craft and never stop looking for the help that we will inevitably need. As a peer support unit director, the degree of help we provide is met with an equal responsibility to care for ourselves. To help others, we must recognize the need to help ourselves first.

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scallonChristopher Scallon, MS, is a Sergeant in the Norfolk, Virginia, Police Department. 

Comments

  1. Linda Simpson's avatar
    Linda Simpson
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    Christopher,
    The journey you describe as a "champion for change" offers a wonder-full example of the courage we all can come to practice. In doing so, we shift our culture to be more nurturing to true wellness for human beings.
    You may also be interested in the work of Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, founder and director of The Trauma Stewardship Institute and author of Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others. She has worked directly with trauma survivors for more than three decades – visit: http://traumastewardship.com/.
    I work in the field of mental health recovery as a Peer Support Specialist and continue to seek ways to expand the awareness of trauma-informed and sensitive through mindful action.
    I am grateful to you and others!
  2. Donna Newton's avatar
    Donna Newton
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    Thanks for raising awareness that our mental health is a vital aspect of overall health, specifically in cases of PTSD suffered by people whose traumatic experience did not occur on a battlefield. As a police officer addressing the topic, you tremendously help break the stigma surrounding people who have suffered a mental health crisis: even though you have suffered a mental illness, not only are you NOT a threat to society, you a person who we depend on to maintain order in our world. Unfortunately I know people who will argue that anyone who suffers/has suffered a mental health issue is just one tick away from a mass killing spree. Thanks for helping to stamp out such gross ignorance about what is a serious medical health issue.
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