PTSD: Caring for First Responders

W/Sheriff Everett Rice. Combat Cross Award.
It was April 1997. There was just ten minutes left in my shift, which ended at 11:00 PM. That's when the call came out.

Through the hazy darkness, I could see that the man standing in the front yard matched the description of an active shooter given by dispatch. An older man, wearing a white t-shirt and blue shorts. The rifle in his hand sealed the deal. This had to be him.

Just three years into my law enforcement career, my moment of truth had come. Would I pull the trigger?

Shots had already been fired at my comrades, and I now had the man in my sights. He'd also fired shots at his wife prior to our arrival. He was what some might call a drunken lunatic. And, he had to be stopped. I called out for him to drop his weapon. Instead, he turned toward me, rifle in hand. Action is always faster than reaction. This fact was ingrained into my mind throughout my firearms training.

Convinced that the man posed an immediate threat to my life and the lives of others, I aimed my 12 gauge Remington 870 shotgun at him and pulled the trigger. Nine ballistic pellets descended upon the man at something like 1300+ feet per second. The distance between us wasn't in my favor given my type of ammunition. The spread pattern allowed for all but one of nine pellets to miss their intended target.

One pellet touched the man, and provided for him a clear signal that the law had arrived. This single pellet entered his shirt pocket, tore a hole through the wad of money he was carrying, and left a 4-inch scar across his chest.

Unfortunately, he was too drunk to care. He returned the favor by firing at me and then jumped into his full size van and led an entire squad of deputies on a chase, firing more shots along the way. Thankfully, this incident ended without anyone getting seriously injured. The bad guy went to jail. And, all the good guys got to go home.

This was my experience with a deadly force incident. I'll never forget the sound of that gun going off in my direction. I sometimes wonder about how close those rounds came to striking me. I don't suppose I'll ever know.

I'm thinking about my experience today, because I just finished listening to some of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office radio traffic as their deputies responded to the tragedy at Umpqua Community College. I wasn't there, but I can picture the drama in my mind and feel the tension in the air. 

These and other types of deadly encounters remind us of the violence police officers and other first responders face and of the potential for duty-related PTSD on those who are charged with defusing dangerous and life-threatening situations. For those not familiar, PTSD is the clinical diagnosis for those who experience ongoing emotional effects after exposure to a life-threatening scenario. The symptoms and their intensity can vary from person to person, as can the duration.

When I experienced my deadly force incident, the law enforcement community was just beginning to embrace the mental-emotional health concerns of first responders. Thankfully, we've come a long way since then.

The desire is for first responders and their families to be aware of the risks for and symptoms of conditions like PTSD that can arise through duty related incidents and to not delay in seeking counsel should there be any concern.

Here are ten common physical/emotional symptoms to watch for after exposure to an on-duty high-risk incident:
  1. Trouble sleeping.
  2. Fatigue.
  3. Change in appetite.
  4. Periods of crying/sobbing.
  5. Recurring thoughts or re-living the incident.
  6. Fear of legal trouble.
  7. Depression/Anxiety/Hyper-vigilence.
  8. Emotional "numbness."
  9. Irritability/Anger.
  10. Avoidance of pertinent issues.
It's important for police officers and their families to dialogue openly about the potential for mental-emotional effects of a high risk or life threatening incident before it happens. To acknowledge these risks is not to express inordinate weakness or a lack of fitness for duty, but to acknowledge an officer's humanity and their corresponding potential need for emotional support post-incident. 

Research has shown that an officer's recovery from PTSD-like symptoms is connected to the support they received from their agency and family.

So, how can biblical counseling help?

Aside from providing a safe, confidential, and clinically-informed setting for talking through the problematic emotions experienced in PTSD-like symptoms, the Scriptures have much to offer police officers who face these circumstances. 

Here are seven passages, among many others, to keep in mind and pray through:
  • Romans 13:1-7: This is an encouraging passage that provides the LEO with biblical support for their position, and their duty to use deadly force in appropriate circumstances.
  • Ps. 46: This passage brings awareness of the presence of God in times of trouble.
  • Romans 8:38-39: This passage reaffirms God's love for his children.
  • Matthew 11:29-30: This passage encourages the LEO struggling with worry to seek rest in the promises of Christ.
  • John 14:27: This passage reminds the LEO of the superior peace and rest found in Christ, as opposed to worldly solutions.
  • Philippians 4:4-8: This passage encourages the LEO struggling with worry and anxiety.
  • Psalm 119:28: This passage encourages the LEO struggling with grief.
I hope this post will encourage officers to think biblically about the realities they face in their chosen profession. Contrary to that unspoken code, there is no shame in admitting that one has been adversely affected by an incident, or in seeking help. Many agencies now offer confidential counseling resources to their troops, and there are other counseling resources available in the community.

Through increased awareness, and vigilance in honestly assessing how LEO's are responding emotionally-mentally to a high risk incident, help can more effectively and efficiently be provided, and more severe symptoms may be avoided or alleviated. These interventions will pave the way to a speedy and healthy return to duty for the officer, which benefits their agency, the community, and their family.