Police & PTSD

“All my past images have been centered on Emergency workers. This piece is for their families. It’s not only us who suffer from PTSD it’s our families as well, and in extreme cases they suffer even more. I dedicate this piece I titled “Not Forgotten” to all the familes of the men and women who work in the military, EMS, law enforcement, fire departments and any other extreme high stress job that may result in PTSD. Thank you to all the wives, husbands and children who make things better for us by just being there”. – Quote and Photo by Daniel Sundahl

https://www.dansunphotos.com/Emergency-Response-Portraits/i-TcT7rCQ

How many of you know a police officer? I bet if you thought about it for 60 seconds, you could name a few of them. You could probably even rattle off a personal police story and how an officer either treated you like an asshole or with respect. How many of you really know a police officer, though? Do you know what they deal with on a day-to-day basis? Have you ever experienced heartache like their family has? Could you explain what goes on inside of their head and help them cope with every traumatizing incident they have been through? After responding to traumatizing incidents time and time again, one could argue that a police officer isn’t a regular human being. Although they would never tell you, many law enforcement officers suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, more commonly referred to as PTSD.

I can clearly remember my first dispatch call to service. It was my very first day on the job. Although I can’t claim this call as my own call because I was responding as a ride-along, it was my first day on the payroll as the newest hired officer and I was young and untested. My partner and I responded to a medical issue at a nearby duplex property and the dispatcher urgently informed us that it was a possible cardiac arrest. We arrived onto the scene and rapidly made our approach to the doorway. I vividly remember walking through the doorway and being hit with a wave of emotion. The scene was tense, with people crying and screaming with a panic which direction we needed to go aid the victim. As a young officer, I didn’t really know what to expect next, but I knew that I wanted to help in any capacity I could. With my adrenaline pumping and some anxiety caused by the unknown outcome that loomed, I reluctantly rushed to a flight of stairs and began climbing with my partner. After we reached the top of the stairs, my partner and I came across the body of the recently deceased. At the time, I surveyed the body with a lot of emotion. Laying on the floor dead was somebodies Dad, somebodies Son, somebodies friend, somebodies love. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I would learn to shut off those emotional feelings, but only after years and years of seeing more of the same. Do I think less of the deceased now than I did after the first time? Absolutely not. Am I admittedly different in my reactions now than I was then? Certainly. This is the way PTSD shows itself. It’s similar to the way a great canyon is formed, after years and years of pressure, weathering, and erosion. It’s a long, tenuous process that takes years to develop, but by the time it’s over the once solid landscape bears the scars of a great canyon. When I started my career in law enforcement I was fresh and full of life, but admittedly, the long and arduous traumas of working in law enforcement has formed a canyon deep within me, along with many other of my brothers and sisters in the field.

The smell of that day is something I will never forget (No, not the dead body). It was something before that. It was the same smell I have smelled over and over and over again. I would describe it as an uncomfortable smell. A smell you can almost cut with a knife. This type of smell has a feeling to it. The smell brings anxiety and a sense of unease. You could call me crazy, but it’s a smell that almost whispers “SON OF A BITCH” in my ear. Whenever this smell comes around, I know shit is about to hit the fan and the work shift is going to bring something seriously unpleasant into my life. The smell of that day was the first of many “critical incidents” I would respond to and have yet responded to. The worst part, some of these incidents do not have closure. Many of these incidents end with you performing some sort of task – seeing them die in front of you – loading them in an ambulance or helicopter and never knowing the outcome – comforting the family on scene for their loss… And, the list goes on and on. 

Logically, you’d begin to wonder how police officers deal with seeing the worst of humankind every day. You may start to wonder how police officers deal with traumatizing incidents. Is there a way to decompress and talk about what happened after every shift? Do police agencies have programs set up to help their officers? Are their families provided training and resources to help their loved ones or even themselves? At the end of the day, who is responsible for the officer and his or her mental health? I would assume most people would say “Well, the officer is responsible for his or her mental health.” Take that into consideration and then ask any officer “How are you doing?” Do you want to know what they will likely say? “I’m fine, thanks.” More than likely, an officer is going to feel uncomfortable discussing their experiences, and in the same breath they are programmed to compartmentalize the trauma as to not burden others, and to protect them from the very things that have traumatized them. Most people think that when the officer says he or she is fine, the officer must be fine. The cycle continues like this for days, months, years, and decades. An officer may never receive or reach out for help. Maybe he or she talks about certain experiences to his or her family but doesn’t go into much detail. How many of you would want to hear a story like this:

“I responded to reports of a hanging. I arrived on scene and was directed to the child’s bedroom. Once I walked into the bedroom, I saw an 8 year old child hanging from his neck due to him being attached to his father’s robe belt (Playing superman off his bunk bed). Quickly cutting him down, CPR was initiated until medical arrived on scene.” Are you getting the picture? Most of the time the story would stop there; however, what if it continued. Say, I went to the hospital to check up on him. As I walked into the E.R. I was directed to the medical room, just in time to see them cut a hole in the 8 year old child’s neck. Spraying blood across the room like mist, I watched as they attempted to create an airway. Having seen enough, I walked out of the hospital room and left never knowing if the child lived or died that day.”

This is just one of the numerous traumatic incidents that have played back in my head on a weekly basis for nearly a decade. They are as real now as the day they happened. Are you ready for another story? Okay, okay… I won’t do that to you. But, guess what? I can stop telling you but that doesn’t mean my family doesn’t have to live with the guy who bottles these up and isn’t willing to share stories like these. Why wouldn’t I share them? Well, I don’t want to expose them to what I deal with daily. It’s not as easy as it may seem to retell police stories. It’s actually quite difficult to come up with something that is appropriate to share. My suggestion… Don’t ask an officer to tell you their craziest police story. They only want to protect you, and themselves.

There are many officers who will go their entire career without obtaining mental heath check-up’s. I know because I have gone 11 years and I’ve never needed a psychiatrist to tell me whether or not I had mental problems. Are we stubborn or are we strong? I say we are a little of both. One thing I know for certain is that I am not a normal human being anymore. Do I have PTSD? I have never been evaluated for it so I don’t know, but I can say I have fundamentally changed as a person. When it is all said and done, we as police officers live a different lifestyle. We are a unique family and we definitely support each other. There are some things that cannot be understood until you’ve lived the life or are a member of the law enforcement family. My recommendation is simple: support and love them unconditionally and seek to understand them.

Thank you to all the wives, husbands and children who make things better for us by just being there – Daniel Sundahl