Triumph Over Trauma
As a young Lexington Police officer, Trevor Wilkins was directed by his employing agency to seek counseling following a critical incident he experienced.
“It’s not one I think I was struggling with, but it was a big enough incident that they wanted us to talk to somebody,” Wilkins said. “I’m fairly confident they picked this person out of the Yellow Pages.”
Wilkins was sent to counseling with a fellow officer who responded to the same incident, involving a firearm. Before the officers spoke, the counselor voiced a disclaimer for her services.
“She said, ‘Just in full disclosure, gentlemen, I want you to know that I don’t believe in guns, and I feel like, with my training, I could talk anybody out of a situation,’” Wilkins recalled.
The session ended there.
“I was brand new, so I just kind of thought, ‘Well, this is going to be a long hour,’” Wilkins said.
His fellow (and more seasoned) officer, however, aggressively encouraged the counselor to sign the form releasing the officers back to duty.
“So she signed it, and we left,” he said. “That was my introduction to therapy.”
Fifteen years into his law enforcement career, Wilkins had experienced enough trauma and tragedy that he was beginning to feel the toll. This time, he sought out a psychologist who had experience with law enforcement culture.
“I went to this first person and, she seemed like a nice lady, but she cried the whole time I was talking,” he said. “So I became the caregiver.”
Next Wilkins met with a mental health professional who specialized in family therapy, and while Wilkins said he was a good psychologist, their sessions mostly involved trading cop stories.
“Neither one of those things helped me,” he said.
So he helped himself. Frustrated by the lack of resources available to him, Wilkins pursued an education in professional counseling and now specializes in serving first responders.
“It’s not that I’m better than anyone else by any means, but I hear these stories in my practice now from first responders who have sought therapy in the past. It did not go well, so they didn’t do it anymore,” he said. “Now they are in worse shape and looking for help.”
Stories like Wilkins’ have led to a penetrating lack of faith and/or mistrust in mental health care providers amongst law enforcement. That mistrust is undergirded by the stigma that law enforcement professionals shouldn’t need mental health care. That stigma is reinforced by fears that seeking help shows weakness, which could call into question an officer’s fitness for duty.
“It infuriates me when I hear things from officers like, ‘My administrator says that if I’m seeking treatment or on medication, he has to put me on light duty or I have to resign,’” Wilkins said. “No wonder people don’t seek out therapy if they think they’re going to lose their overtime or their job.”
Not all administrators form these proverbial brick walls between their ranks and seeking help. Many have embraced opportunities to keep their officers mentally fit. However, Wilkins said he believes the real difference in dissolving the stigma starts at the bottom of the organization, not the top.
“Younger officers are more comfortable talking about PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder),” Wilkins said. “It’s a word now; it’s a thing. Back in World War II, people came back and called it shell shock and did nothing about it. Now people are asking, ‘Are you dealing with PTSD? Am I dealing with PTSD? Should I get help?’”
It only takes one person in an agency to educate themselves about the common signs of post-traumatic stress and to start listening, Wilkins said. Sometimes peer intervention can be the turning point for an officer who is struggling.
It may seem counter-intuitive from the perspective of a practicing therapist, but Wilkins said he does not believe everyone needs professional therapy. Some people need to talk and know there is support available.
“Let’s assume you have a blockade – a supervisor who doesn’t care,” he said. “That stinks. But why don’t you be the advocate? You become the guy who is vocal about mental health. Even if it’s just saying, ‘Hey, come talk to me if you need it.’ That doesn’t mean you have to take their crisis calls in the middle of the night. But, you can be the one who everybody knows is a champion of mental health, so that one person can come and say, ‘You know all that stuff you’ve been talking about? I think I’m having a problem. Do you have any suggestions?’”
Clinically speaking, a PTSD diagnosis requires a patient to meet five criteria indicating their stress level has become intrusive on their everyday life. Most first responders likely have post-traumatic stress – whether it is life intrusive or not. Admitting that doesn’t make them crazy.
“Officers come in here who are struggling and say, ‘I don’t want anybody to know I’m here,’” Wilkins said. “I don’t want my co-workers to think I’m crazy or that I can’t handle the job.”
In response to these conversations, Wilkins said he offers responders a challenge with a juicy reward.
“I tell them to pull up cruiser window-to-window with their regular beat partner, or another officer they trust and say, ‘Hey, I don’t want you to worry, but that call messed me up,’” Wilkins said. “‘I think I’m OK, but that one’s getting to me a little bit.’ Or, ‘This supervisor is getting to me.’
“I will bet you a steak dinner that other cop says, ‘Yeah, me too,’” he continued. “And I have yet to have to pay for a steak dinner.”
As peers, Wilkins urges taking time to listen and observe signs that someone needs more help. When it’s clear that a mental health professional is needed, don’t give up if the first experience isn’t a good one. Keep trying until you find a counselor with whom you connect.
“People don’t come to me saying, ‘I’ve had a critical incident, I’m having avoidance features, it’s causing me hypervigilance, and it’s causing me increased startle response,’” Wilkins said.
“They come in and say, ‘I don’t know what the hell is going on,” he continued. “I’m drinking too much, my family is falling apart, nobody likes me, I used to be the poster boy for the agency and now I’m written up all the time. My wife has left, and my kids are scared of me. I jump at every little sound – what the hell is wrong with me? I call those the real signs.
“If we can get that message out and let other officers know, ‘Oh, that’s what’s going on? You’re falling apart, but it could be trauma related. Let’s go get help for it, then,’” he said.