Mike Roche: The Restoration of First Responders Suffering from PTSD

Mike Roche

The Restoration of First Responders Suffering from PTSD

Thomas Bean was a police officer enjoying his day off on December 14, 2012, when a call went out that would change his life and that of the nation forever. A shooting occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Officer Bean responded to the call for assistance and was one of the first to arrive at the horrific scene. The images of the lifeless bodies of twenty small children haunted Bean as they would for any healthy individual.

Bean went home that evening and found comfort in the bottom of a bottle of alcohol. His battle with the demons continued, as his one night of drinking continued to many more nights. While standing in a store shortly after the attack, Bean became hyper-vigilant and paranoid that every person in the store was potentially targeting him. He realized he was in trouble. In an emotional fog, he considered cutting himself, so that he could feel pain. Bean told CNN, “I had no feeling, no sensation, no nothing.”

Officer Bean was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and unable to return to his job, as he is haunted with the reminders of that horrific day. Further exacerbating his condition is that the City of Newtown sent him a letter of termination. That has since been rescinded. The State of Connecticut does not cover mental health under workers compensation. If he were shot, he would be covered for physical injuries. Connecticut will apply for a federal grant and if approved, $6.1 million would be allocated for mental health counseling and wellness programs.

PTSD is a condition that can be managed and overcome with appropriate counseling, treatment and medication. PTSD is commonly characterized by flashbacks to the trauma-induced events, avoidance, detached personality, sleep disturbances and irritability. The stress often spills over on their home life and performance at work.

Those who are suffering from the illness are more likely to harm themselves than others. Police suicides outnumber the line of duty deaths by a two to one margin. Many more suicides are ruled an accident blamed on a firearm mishap while cleaning the gun or the single car fatality accident.

Those who suffer from PTSD can feel a sense of isolation and betrayal depending on the support provided by their respective departments. This wallowing in self-doubt, while considering the adverse impact on their future careers, could have negative consequences. Many times, officers who have been diagnosed with PTSD will have difficulty returning to the street because of liability concerns if they involved in a shooting situation. As a result, officers are often reassigned to assignments that reduce their exposure to perilous situations.

Approximately 13% of police officers will suffer from PTSD. This can be caused by a single traumatic event such as Newtown, Aurora, September 11, a line of duty death, shooting or from cumulative stress suffered during the course of a career. Police officers after leaving the scene of a traumatic incident often drive away alone in their car and are left to contemplate and relive the critical incident. The death of children is the most haunting images that officers try to suppress. They will often project a facade of normalcy, but inside they are ravaged by demons destroying their soul.

I serve as a peer support counselor at a program focused on healing and restoring police officers who suffer from the effects post traumatic stress. Comments from some of the attendees were, “You saved my life!” and “This experience altered my life!”  The goal of The Franciscan Center Post Trauma Education Retreat in Tampa, Florida is to return stability and balance to the lives of first responders suffering post trauma stress and to deepen their relationships at home.

The five-day resident program located on a six-acre serene campus is perched along the Hillsborough River. The program is peer based and clinically guided by the warm embrace of trust from those that have walked in the shoes of the responders and share many of the same experiences. Confidentiality is essential to develop trust and a shared bond to mend the exhaustive darkness that consumes so many who have experienced trauma.

The program is intense and requires the commitment of long days. Education is at the core of the program to provide a foundation of skills to cope with and manage stress in the future. The educational component includes a number of classes. PTSD Resiliency explores the effects of the stress illness and that the illness is curable. Greif and bereavement is taught by two wonderful retired VA Hospice nurses. These angels have listened to many veterans’ deathbed confessions and a release of their inner turmoil that has gripped them and impacted their lives. Forgiveness explores the shackles that bind us with hate, betrayal and revenge.

Wellness addresses the basic needs of our body. Proper diet and exercise can help to alleviate the harmful effects of stress on the body. In the throes of anxiety from trauma, officers often fail to address the most basic needs for the body. They pass the salad bar for a more expedient fast food meal and postpone a beneficial workout in favor of sitting at a bar or watching TV.

Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) has had amazing results on the participants. The procedure is difficult to describe, but the practitioner explores a traumatic event with the participant through the recall of visual images. The process commands the right and left-brain to sync up and is often described as the process used by computers to defrag the hard drive. The EMDR process results in a restoration of recall of the trauma to a more acceptable mindset. Participants who have been besieged by sleep disturbances report their first restful night of complete sleep in years. Imagine the gift of a full night of sleep.

Group discussions and socialization provide a normalization of the experience. Often feeling alone, these brave men and women learn that others share similar experiences and mutual feelings. The group process provides a therapeutic sharing of inner turmoil in a confidential and serene environment and allows for the exploration of possible remedies to help cope and confront the stress.

The transformation I have witnessed by the participants has been astounding. On the first day, as the responders checked into their own private rooms, I observed their guarded approach and hesitation. Slowly the veneers of apprehension begin to dissipate as the week progresses. After graduation, I notice an apprehension of the guests to leave their comrades. The veil of reluctance has been replaced with a positive hope for the future. They have become close knit and the bond is unmistakable. I witnessed a renewed passion and embracing of life. The energy is invigorating for not only for the participants but for the peer support and staff, as we have witnessed a restoration of the human soul and watch these warriors return to serve the community.

The Franciscan Center Post Trauma Education Retreat is open to first responders from anywhere. Many departments with tight budgets will not cover the costs. They will replace the tires on a patrol car while ignoring the human capital. The center is dependent upon the financial support of generous donors to help fund and defray the cost of the training.

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Mike Roche has spent over three decades in law enforcement. He started his career with the Little Rock Police Department, retired from the U.S. Secret Service as a special agent after twenty-two years, and is an adjunct instructor at Saint Leo University. Mike is the author of three novels and two nonfiction works, Face 2 Face: Observation, Interviewing and Rapport Building Skills: an ex-Secret Service Agents Guide and his most recent on Mass Killers: How You Can Identify Workplace, School and Public Killers Before they Strike.

*We’re extremely pleased that Special Agent Roche is once again joining us as a presenter at the 2014 Writers’ Police Academy. He’ll be teaching two workshops—Romance Behind the Badge and Real Cops for Real Writers: The Psychology of Cops.