Resilience is a topic many law enforcement trainers have been paying attention to and talking about over the last year or two.
Some people define resilience as bouncing back after a traumatic event. I am going to respectfully disagree. I don’t think we can bounce back or go back to where we were before an event.
We will not go back to a pre-pandemic world once the threat of COVID-19 has passed, if that even happens. We cannot go back to the world before the death of George Floyd. After a critical incident on the job or a career in law enforcement you cannot go back to the pre-event or pre-career you.
A career in law enforcement will change you; it does not have to break or destroy you, but it will change you. Which is why I do not think resilience is about bouncing back.
One of my favorite books on the topic is Resilience: Hard Won Wisdom for Leading a Better Life by Eric Greitens. He suggests that resilience in not about bouncing back, but about moving through. Moving through Hardship to Happiness, through Pain to Wisdom and through Suffering to Strength. He goes on to say, “What happens to us becomes part of us. Resilient people do not bounce back from hard experiences; they find healthy ways to integrate them into their lives.”
Over the past 2 ½ years I have had the pleasure of getting to know Daniel Sundahl, a firefighter / paramedic and artist. In his department they do regular rotations as firefighters and as paramedics. A major highway divides their municipality so they respond to a significant number of serious injury and fatal traffic collisions along with the myriad of other calls firefighters and paramedics deal with. Daniel runs an annual conference on Peer Resiliency and Post Traumatic Growth, speaks at a number of conference dealing with post traumatic stress and has spoken to first responders around the world. In those talks he shares his journey through PTSD and how he used his artwork as part of his healing. The picture on the home page of my main website www.brianw260.sg-host.com is one of Daniel’s prints. I recommend you check out his website at https://www.dansunphotos.com. What is more impactful than his powerful images are the stories behind each and every one of them. He tells the stories in his presentations as well as in his books. Daniel is a great example of someone who has found healthy ways to integrate his hard experiences into his life, and in doing so has helped countless firefighters, paramedics, police officers, dispatchers, nurses, doctors and many others realize they are not alone in what they are experiencing and given them permission to experience what they are feeling and to seek help to allow them to move through and grow.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing author Laurence Gonzales about two of his books Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why and Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience for the Excellence in Training Academy. On the topic of Resilience he shares similar insights to Eric Greitens. In Surviving Survival, Gonzales writes, “…in dealing with the aftermath of trauma, it’s important to realize that we don’t get over it. We get on with it.” He says, “Indeed, research by James Pennebaker at the University of Texas, among others, has shown that “all kinds of upheavals bring people together” and terrible experiences can bring out the best in us.” We live on. But, we also live with.”
In her great book Increasing Resilience in Police and Emergency Personnel, Stephanie Conn PhD, writes “Overwhelmingly, experts agree that resilience isn’t something you have or you don’t. It’s neither a state or a trait, but a process. Like officer safety, physical fitness, or sobriety, it’s something that requires a daily commitment and actions in furtherance of this commitment.”
These are all important concepts to teach law enforcement professionals, and their families. That instruction needs to start at the Academy level and be continually reinforced throughout their careers. It is important to continually reinforce strategies for building resilience. Many of these are simple (not necessarily easy) such as physical fitness, breathing, healthy eating, sleep and fatigue management, mindfulness, meditation, hobbies, continual learning, maintaining social connections and social supports and being of service to others. This is hardly a comprehensive list, but these are strategies every officer can implement in their life at little or no cost. While the financial investment is minimal, the return on the investment of these strategies is huge. Just talking about these is not enough. They need to become part of the culture of an agency.
We need to continually find ways to build resilience in the heroic men and women of the law enforcement profession. We need to help them find healthy ways to integrate their hard experiences into their lives.
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