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Cops and Shrinks: When to Go to Therapy and Why

Feb 17, 2021

Therapy won’t make you perfect, but it will help you live a wiser, happier life.

In my last post, I wrote that fear about confidentiality is high on the list of reasons cops don’t reach out for help. But there are other reasons like stigma, shame, or the distorted belief that only weak people have problems. Here’s what I know after 40 years of counseling LEOs: to need help is to be human, not weak. And problems are more easily borne when shared with someone you trust.

Police work is hard, always has been. And it’s getting harder all the time. Being a cop will change you. How could it not given that most cops will see more cruelty and tragedy in the first few years of their career than the rest of us will see in a lifetime.  But—I want to shout this at the top of my lungs— it doesn’t have to damage you. Not if you learn to protect yourself and your family, and live with resilience. What does resilience mean?  It means the ability to struggle well and bounce back in the face of adversity. This is different from those familiar, yet faulty notions of invulnerability, self-sufficiency, and rugged individualism that run rampant throughout law enforcement culture.

As a cop, you are probably a natural self-reliant, problem solver who is reluctant to burden others with your problems. Certainly, you prefer to talk things over with a peer or a family member before going to a “shrink.” You might even talk yourself out of going for help by worrying that you are making things worse than they really are,  your problems are trivial compared to others, and you don’t want to burden the therapist who will probably run from the room the minute you start telling it like it is. This kind of stinky self-talk is like losing the pain in your tooth on the way to the dentist. Rest assured, the pain will come back, only now you need a new tooth and antibiotics instead of a simple filling.

Why to go? Some people start therapy because they are interested in personal growth. Others start because their lives or their relationships are unbearable. Perhaps they are coping so poorly with life that they are creating even more problems by numbing out with alcohol, having multiple affairs, gambling, obsessive exercise and so on. These are short-term fixes with serious long-term consequences. They are compulsions not coping mechanisms designed by the pleasure centers of our brains to fool you into going for the false relief of instantaneous gratification and avoid the sustainable relief that comes with fixing rather than avoiding a problem. One thing is certain, you don’t need to be broken or nuts to qualify as a client. All you need is the motivation to feel better or behave better.

What might motivate you to ramp up the courage to seek help? This list is long, but not all-inclusive.

  • emotional pain
  • rumination (non-stop negative thinking about an idea, situation or choice)
  • unprocessed childhood experiences or abuse that interfere with your adult life
  • poor self-esteem
  • difficulty coping or coping poorly
  • high stress and/or related medical problems
  • depression, from a  chronic case of the blahs to active suicidal thoughts
  • anxiety, phobias, panic attacks
  • relationship problems of all sorts
  • job-related stress and career concerns
  • grief
  • addictions of all sorts
  • help with big decisions
  • post-traumatic stress
  • sleep problems or eating problems
  • financial difficulties
  • self-destructive behavior

When to go? Don’t put off getting help until your problems stack up so high you have a crisis on your hands. Better to put out a wastebasket fire than delay until the entire house is in flames. Waiting too long makes your life more difficult and the shrink’s job much harder.

Common sense says you should seek counseling before you are told to go by your boss, your partner, your significant other, your friends, or your family. If you think close others don’t notice that you’re in trouble, you’re fooling yourself. And if you think you don’t bring your job home, think again.

Where to look? There are dozens of apps to help you manage stress, stay calm, become more mindful and so on. Apps are great supplements to therapy but, in my opinion, apps won’t replace the benefits of talking face to face, even if it’s over the Internet.

Some departments have in-house counseling programs or Behavioral Health Units. You may already know some of the clinicians that work there because they might also teach in the academy or consult to the FTO program. Your peer support team or department chaplain may recommend someone on staff. The very best referral is a friend who saw a counselor and found him or her helpful.

Most agencies contract with Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and offer you sessions at no-cost or reduced cost. EAP programs offer clear boundaries. It’s doubtful you’ll run into your therapist at a retirement function. On the downside, some programs may offer only limited visits and their providers may be inexperienced working with law enforcement. (This is why my colleagues and I wrote a book for therapists titled Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know).

Still have cold feet? Police psychologist Marla Friedman suggests bringing a trusted buddy with you to your first session. He or she can sit in the waiting or come into the session with you until you feel comfortable.

Not all therapists or therapies are the same. Come back next month, I’ll be talking about what therapies and which clinical styles seem to work best with LEOs and their families.

Can’t wait? Check these sites for links to culturally competent clinicians.

  • If your department subscribes to the Cordico app, it maintains a list of culturally competent clinicians in your area.
  • The 1st Help website offers a searchable database of clinicians who work with first responders.
  • The First Responder Support Network offers a list of clinicians. On the menu go to Resources and then click on “Looking for a Clinician.”
  • To find a therapist, you can also visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Note: In January’s post I omitted the following exception to confidentiality: A suspected threat to national security must be reported to federal officials.

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