Officer Jeff Shannon is a California-based police officer and marriage and family therapist (MFT). He has a very informative blog entitled “Police Mental Health,” just one of the avenues where Officer Shannon shares the importance of mental wellness for law enforcement and other first responders. CriminalJusticeSchoolInfo.com had the pleasure of chatting with Officer Shannon and learning about his professions, his personal background and his observations on the current status of mental health awareness and strategies within the law enforcement world.
CJSI: What inspired you to become a police officer?
JS: I became a sworn peace officer in 2004, at the age of 37. I wanted to be a cop because I believed (and still do) that it’s an honorable profession providing a vitally important public service. I feel like I’ve always had what we call the “police personality,” which includes traits like toughness, poise and a bit of stubbornness.
My father was a California Highway Patrol Officer and I worked as a civilian mental health professional alongside law enforcement for a number of years. I applied to my first law enforcement job at the age of 21, but failed the oral board for the Los Angeles Police Department. I figured I better stay in college and let go of the idea of being a cop, which I did, until later in life.
CJSI: What are examples of the range of situations you encounter as a police officer?
JS: One of the great things about working in law enforcement is that there are so many different things you can do, with widely different responsibilities. I’m not currently working as a patrol officer, but when I did, I answered calls for service, which could include anything from a mentally ill individual acting out, to an automobile collision to a homicide, and everything in between. Patrol officers spend a great deal of time interacting with people at their worst.
In addition to answering calls for service, I did proactive policing by looking for crimes that I believed had just occurred, were about to occur or were in progress. For me, that was the most exciting part of patrol. I also got out and just chatted with people. Another great thing about law enforcement is that you get to meet people from all walks of life and I enjoy that.
Honestly, there are some frustrating aspects of working as a patrol officer as well, like the tons of (seemingly useless) paperwork and other administrative hassles. Depending on where one works, it can be boring, with long periods of patrolling empty streets.
CJSI: What inspired you to become a marriage and family therapist and do you specialize in counseling law enforcement officers?
JS: I became a marriage and family therapist in 1997, but have worked in mental health in some form or another for about 25 years. I work with individuals and couples most of who are in law enforcement. I’m interested in police stress and wellness, so that’s the focus of my practice.
I think I get the therapist impulse from my mother, who was a highly sensitive and compassionate woman who preferred listening over talking. However, my family had a great deal of dysfunction. It wasn’t until I was fully into school before I realized that I was there partly to better understand what I experienced growing up.
CJSI: It sounds like your father experienced a lot of stress on the job. Have you observed this personally and among your colleagues?
JS: My father was a text book case of police stress, the toll it can take on one’s body, mind and spirit, and the need to be active in managing it rather than trying to avoid it. He over identified as a police officer, participated in a lot of socially encouraged alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking and gambling. He had a relatively short CHP career before medically retiring. Over a period of years he became an isolated, chain smoking, divorced, depressed alcoholic who didn’t take care of himself. He had a major heart attack at the age of 50 and died at 57. My siblings and I had front row seats to all this.
I have observed all these behaviors both in myself and in colleagues. The police occupational subculture is well defined and slow to change. Fortunately, we are speeding up that change as we speak.
CJSI: How do you recommend law enforcement officers and other first responders deal with stress and related mental health issues?
JS: That’s a great question! The first thing officers and other first responders can do is acknowledge, on a very deep level, that stress does not manage itself. Avoiding it is not an option. Video games, alcohol use, gambling or sexing are all activities we employ to avoid that tense feeling we have at the end of the day. I’m not saying, don’t ever watch TV or drink alcohol, only that we should be aware of part of the function it serves—that of avoiding uncomfortable feelings. There’s a good deal of research connecting overreliance on these coping strategies with poor health outcomes.
The best way to manage stress is to prevent it from affecting you in the first place. There are a number of attitudes and behaviors we can use to make ourselves more resilient to stress, such as exercise, a good diet, friends who we can open up to, and religious practice to name just a few. Finally, we need to ask for help when we need it. That may seem basic, but asking for help for a mental health issue has historically been especially stigmatized in law enforcement and it’s killing us, as evidenced by the high suicide and mortality rates we have. Posttraumatic stress disorder is a psychological injury (not a weakness) and is an occupational hazard for all first responders. Get help when you need it!
There’s a whole laundry list of things the police agency can do to alleviate stress for their officers, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
CJSI: Has awareness increased do you think? Are more law enforcement officers feeling comfortable sharing their feelings or is there more training available to deal with stress, PTSD, anxiety, depression…?
JS: Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in his book, On Combat, uses the proverb, “Forewarned is forearmed.” The effort to forewarn officers about the importance of maintaining the high degree of wellness we enter this career with, is gaining some steam. I’m seeing more classes and training on this subject which is a promising sign. I think cops are much more open to talking about mental health related issues than when my dad was a cop in the 1970s.
Kevin Gilmartin, author of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, is prolific national lecturer on this topic. A number of researchers, John Violanti most prominently, have dedicated themselves to furthering our understanding of police stress. The military has taken the lead in developing some of the most cutting edge programs for building resilience. There’s much to borrow there. Finally, there are online resources such as Badge of Life (badgeoflife.com) and Cops Alive (copsalive.com), and phone applications (i.e., tactical breather for iPhone) to avail ourselves of. We have a lot more work to do, but we’re absolutely moving in the right direction, as shown by your interest in the subject.
CJSI: Is there anything you would like to add?
JS: With work and dedication, we can do more than emotionally survive a career in law enforcement. We can lead healthy, full and rich lives.
You can visit Officer Jeff Shannon’s Police Mental Health blog at: http://www.policementalhealth.blogspot.ca/