Counselors Don’t Get Us
Breaching first responder barriers in mental health
As fire, police, and other uniformed personnel cultures begin shifting toward mental wellness within their agencies, this is the first step into psychological fitness for everyday life. Peer support programs, mental health in-service trainings, and proactive vs. reactive efforts are becoming the new norm across the nation. First responders are working together to break down barriers of their subcultural expectations of “you don’t talk about it (mental health and substance abuse issues).” A second layer to address is who do you go to when professional guidance is necessary? The stigma is starting to lift and the benefits of mental health and substance use disorder treatment are getting increased attention and praise. However, without first responders feeling safe to participate in said services, we approach the third layer to achieving psychological wellness: finding the right counselor for your needs.
Over the course of my career, I have gained a wealth of insight as to why first responders can be so turned off by clinicians. As a police wife and therapist, I share a similar predisposition to seeking out those who inherently understand the complexities of my career and lifestyle. There’s something to be said, or felt, when talking with someone who can understand you on a more complex and deeper level by using fewer words.
A recurring complaint from first responders is that counselors (also synonymous with therapist and clinicians) “don’t ‘get’ us.” It’s imperative to identify common barriers prohibiting America’s heroes from walking into that first session and how therapists can engage their clients into continuing treatment.
First responders want to avoid being talked at, talked down to, or pitied. Have you ever gone to a training or professional presentation where the mental health speaker uses foreign clinical terms, resulting in more time spent Internet searching definitions than soaking up the information? From my experiences, first responders want to get necessary information and implement it. Using big words to sound smart can be translated as, “I’m threatened by you so I’m flexing my brain muscle,” or, “I’m not that great at tapping into my casual self.” So, they can recite data and theoretical concepts, but being able to connect and use that knowledge requires emotional intelligence and skills. For the client, this can feel like a power play and asserting dominance, even when it’s unintentional. Counselors need to be able to dance the fine line of being personable without overstepping boundaries as well as tap into their clinical skills for fluid conversations and treatment.
On the flip side, clients probably are not seeking out the overly nurturing, preschool teacher type of therapist either. They need to feel confident that their therapist can handle their stuff. The experience of being accepted and validated through talking openly and honestly about what they have/are going through is where one’s recovery can occur. More often, counseling services for this population is similar to coaching. You’ve got the skills. You might need some help strengthening them.
What (life) experiences does a therapist have to be able to relate to me? Military or service-related background? Education in a similar field? A close family member (i.e., sibling, parent, or spouse) is a first responder? This is not “just a job.” It’s an identity, a lifestyle, a calling, and many other adjectives to state what it is to be a first responder. Simply taking off the uniform/turnout gear/duty belt only signifies the shift is over. The responsibilities, memories, and sworn oath remain. A therapist needs to understand this lifestyle and respect what it means to the client. Ride-alongs are a good start to understanding the tasks of a first responder’s job. However, a therapist who has a connection to that lifestyle can provide less of a concern for feeling misunderstood or judged.
While I completed my undergraduate degree in law enforcement, I will never forget a Military Science instructor’s statement, “Emotions get you killed on the battlefield.” Emotions are a human function and the ability to turn them on and off, when appropriate, can become more difficult as the job and personal life start to intertwine. I’ve watched this occur in so many uniformed personnel’s lives where they struggle to reconnect with their families because of the habitual or intentional use of emotional control. Going to a mental health professional can assist with issues such as having more control over your thinking, perception, emotions, and behaviors just by talking.
“Am I going to lose my job if I’m honest about what I’m really going through?” If you don’t address the issues that have you thinking about going to counseling, what’s the likelihood of your losing your job anyway? Being honest creates trust within the therapeutic relationship and in you by owning the things that keep you stuck in life or created issues in your relationships or job.
You can be honest and share your genuine thoughts and feelings when you’re ready to. As a therapist, I don’t expect clients to first meet me and swing their emotional flood gates wide open. Disclosing personal information can be done in steps and can take time. Therapists can lose their clients when they want to barrel into major issues right at the beginning. In outpatient counseling, sessions and topics can be paced and strategic. The client is at the center of the treatment and able to experience control.
There are many ways to find the counselor who best fits you. It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, and sometimes you may not feel a connection with the first therapist you meet. It’s okay to ask the therapist for a referral to another therapist. Otherwise, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), department vetted clinicians, and local first responder-friendly treatment providers may be available just by asking a coworker or friend. If you have a Peer Support Team, it may have local and national resources available for you to choose from, when you’re ready.
Departments and first responders nationwide appear to be more proactive and open to mental wellness. Now is the time to be more open-minded and proactive to what resources are available to you and think about why you are not taking advantage of them. Do not wait until you are all but coerced into mental health or substance use treatment. Get educated about what others within your department and career are doing to help themselves and each other. Stranger Danger may be useful in your job, but it can be a serious barrier when counseling is considered. There are professionals out there who do understand the complex nature of your lifestyle as well as possess the skills and professionalism to confidentially meet your needs.
Courtney Stewart is a licensed professional counselor in Wisconsin and Illinois. Additionally, she’s a LEO wife and mother. She graduated from Western Illinois University in 2008 with a B.S. in law enforcement and justice administration. In 2010, she graduated with an M.A. in clinical psychology from Argosy University-Schaumburg (Illinois Professional School of Psychology). Since then, she’s provided therapy services in the following settings: residential treatment, outpatient, private practice, and corrections. She is a psychotherapist at the Rock County Sheriff’s Office Jail in Janesville, WI. She volunteers as the executive advisor (mental health consultant) for the Rockford Police Department (PBPA #6) Peer Support Team. Additionally, she is a member of the Officer Wellness Committee for the Rock County Sheriff’s Office.