FEATURED IN LEADERSHIP
In this series on employment assistance programs (EAPs), counseling, and confidentiality we've been looking at one of the most common worries held by police officers when they find themselves sitting across from a psychotherapist: that what they say in therapy may make its way back to their department and be used against them.
We hope we’ve been able to offer clarity of what your rights are in therapy, helped to explain what confidentiality is and how sacred it truly is to your therapist and why, and explained the fundamental differences between voluntarily seeking therapy on your own and those times you may be required or ordered to speak with a mental health professional as a condition of your job--and how confidentiality may be different in those circumstances.
It occurred to us that one of the fundamental questions, at least as far as voluntarily seeking out counseling goes, should probably be answered: How do I know if going to see a therapist might be a good idea?
Each person’s answer to that question will be unique and is deeply personal, but to help by providing a framework within which to find the answer, we’ve come up with five considerations that should help you know.
If You Think You Should Go ...
Usually, when people pick up the phone to make that first appointment--or decide to return to counseling after having been away for some time--it’s not an impulsive decision. It’s a thought that has been mulled over for some time. And that is one of the best indicators you would benefit from counseling.
How often have you, as a police officer, mentioned to someone you are trying to help on a call that maybe they would benefit from counseling? Perhaps they are a victim of an abusive partner, or a parent struggling with a challenging adolescent, or someone slipping deeper into depression or anxiety and coming onto the department’s radar more and more.
How often have you heard in response, “I know… you’re right… I’ve been telling myself that. I really just need to go.” It’s easy to give that advice when you’re on the outside of the problem and trying to help; it’s quite another thing when you find yourself mired in the problem, looking for a fix, and wondering where to turn.
The truth is many therapy clients – and this includes cops and other first responders – reach the conclusion they might need or benefit from counseling well before actually making the appointment. So what if someone suggested to you that counseling might be a good idea? Would you be the one saying, “I know… you’re right … I’ve been telling myself that. I really just need to go”?
If Others Suggest It ...
“You know, when it got to be all the other drunks down at the bar where I liked to hang out were telling me I had a problem and riding my ass about my drinking, I thought, ‘Hey, maybe I really do have a problem!’”
A pretty damned good reason I once heard someone give for why they decided to get help!
Maybe it’s not drinking or popping pills that have people worried about you, but if someone is worried, then listen to them. Maybe it’s your spouse or partner, a family member or best friend, or someone from work who cares about you enough to broach the uncomfortable issues, but if they are pointing out their worries about your emotional well-being maybe you should heed their words.
One of the most uncomfortable conversations you can have with someone you care about is mentioning your worries about their psychological well-being and wish that they’d seek some help. It’s not like noticing a peculiar looking mole on the back of their neck and suggesting a trip to the dermatologist to check it out; it’s very personal and emotionally risky and the sort of thing that can drive a wedge in relationships. If anyone has ever brought such a concern up with you--or ever does--respect the risk they took and seriously consider their worries and advice.
Another possibility to consider is they may speak from experience. Oftentimes, someone who has already walked a mile in the shoes you now wear can see the trials you face, no matter how carefully you think they are hidden. Respect that as well.
"Open the Box"
We frequently refer to that place cops like keep things neatly tucked away from the rest of their world--all those sad, depressing, frightening, frustrating, and outright horrible things they see and struggle with each day that they want to put out of sight and out of mind at the end of their shift--as “The Box.”
It’s understandable that you want to put things in “the box” and forget about it until you head back in; why wouldn’t you want to keep it from your home life? Why not keep it out of view of your spouse and the kids, your buddies and the neighbors, or even yourself, until you really have to go back in and deal with it all over again tomorrow?
The problem is that you can never really hide those things from yourself and, unless you have an outlet for the pain and anger and frustration, they’ll eat away at you. They’ll weigh heavy on your mind, fester in your soul, and grow cynicism and scorn for the public and people you serve. Eventually, they will seed your own depression.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, “the box” simply gets too full. It starts to bleed out onto other aspects of your life, the things you keep in there from work affect the very people you try to protect from them, and you find yourself getting more and more irritable.
What you need to do is “open the box” and share it with someone else. A counselor can be an excellent resource with whom to share the contents. (And you should probably know, most professional therapists keep their own “boxes,” too, and the really good ones know exactly how to manage them in a way they’ll do no harm.)
Personal Buttons Pushed?
Every one of us has personal “buttons” others can push, intentionally or not, that can trigger feelings of anger (even rage) enough to overcome professional objectivity. The threats this can pose are both professional (to overreact, behave unprofessionally, personalize their words or actions, or otherwise allow our behavior to be negatively directed by someone else) or personally (to let the experience influence our self-esteem, take the anger home and act it out, or even influence our worldview in an exaggerated way).
In the parlance of psychotherapy, what is generally really going on between cop and citizen in these exchanges where the officer’s buttons are pushed is a form of what is known as “transference and counter-transference.”
The presence or actions of the officer trigger an emotional/psychological reaction in the citizen (transference) that results in a response in either word or deed. When that response is maladaptive or provocative (and especially when it is provocative) it, in turn, triggers a response in the officer that can be equally maladaptive or provocative.
Now, that is an extremely simplified way to describe an extremely complex interaction that really can’t do it justice. The thing to understand, though, is that transference and counter- transference feelings and behaviors are often rooted just below the surface of our own objective understanding of them. Their effects are very real, and potentially very damaging.
Do you know or suspect you are experiencing a depressive disorder, anxiety, or some other issue? Have you lost interest in the things you used to love doing, feel distracted or inexplicably fatigued, or find yourself isolating? Are you quick to anger, or is there a low-grade anger always just simmering beneath the surface, either ready to erupt or eating away at your insides? Have you lost faith in who you are and what you do?
These are just some of the questions you can ask yourself if you think counseling may be beneficial. If you suspect something grab your computer, sign into a search engine, and start researching; in this age of ready information there’s no reason to be in the dark about anything, and finding help is at your fingertips. As cops, you probably deal with and counsel people all the time to go and get the help they need. Should you be heading your own words?
If reading any of these five considerations makes you think, “Yeah, maybe it would be a good idea to go for a little counseling,” then go. Check out your EAP or thumb through your health insurance list of service providers. Try a few sessions and see if you don’t start seeing some benefits right away. Why not? It won’t hurt. It might just help.
And, as we’ve already explained, it’s all confidential.
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