Wellness and Safety; One and the Same

by | Jan 13, 2022 | Mental Health

Written By: Thomas Coghlan, PsyD

There is sometimes a misconception among law enforcement that agency “Wellness Services” and “Tactical Training” units are diametrically opposed to one another in practice, purpose and intent. Wellness efforts are sometimes perceived as being soft, sensitive, and even altogether unnecessary. Indeed, when I was going through the academy, the “Social Sciences” instructional unit was mockingly referred to as the “Silly Sciences”. Tactical training units, on the other hand, are seen as essential, substantial, rugged training grounds where iron sharpens iron and officers are prepared for the streets. In truth, however, wellness and safety cannot be disentangled from each other. Far more than being two sides of the same coin, wellness and safety are systems of the same body. We can no more separate the circulatory and respiratory systems from the body and expect it to function than can we separate wellness and safety from an officer and expect them to be either well or safe.

Take, for example, these wellness and safety concepts; burnout and situational awareness. Seemingly separate and distinct, burnout is a wellness concept discussed during experiential sharing-circles at weekend retreats and wellness seminars while situational awareness is learned experientially during scenario-based simulation trainings in agency “fun houses” and through lived experiences on the street. Surely then, they must be separate and distinct from each other. Right?

In law enforcement in general, and certainly more so over the last two years, burnout is very real, insidious, and toxic. When faced with agency policies that are quick-to-criticize but slow-to-praise, when made to constantly do more with less, when reciprocity from the community is nowhere to be found, when job satisfaction and fulfillment have diminished, when draconian policies, mixed messages and organizational betrayal come from executive levels, burnout is sure to follow. Burnout is a gradual process that sets in beyond our conscious awareness. In burnout we find three major experiences. First, we find a sense of overwhelming physical, emotional or mental exhaustion. Second, a deepening cynicism, pessimistic outlook, and a sense of detachment from the job. And third, a lack of any sense of accomplishment and a feeling of ineffectiveness. Once burnt out, we become apathetic to the job, indifferent to our responsibilities, and without a sense of purpose at work. We may begin to tell ourselves to “sign in, do nothing, sign out, go home.” Unless burnout is attended to, we can become complacent, disinterested, and generally lacking. What do we know about complacency in law enforcement? We know that it kills.

The wellness construct of burnout destroys the essence of situational awareness, of tactical presence. Burnout destroys the very thing that the United States Marine Corps’ Warfighting Laboratory and Combat Hunter training program would call a bias-for-action; having a “penchant for boldness” and “being able to decide, communicate, and act” during critical incidents. Maintaining a bias-for-action helps keep us “Left-of-Bang”; remaining alert, staying proactive, detecting pre-event indicators and taking decisive action to disrupt them. When you’re Left-of-Bang you’re situationally aware and tactically sound. When burnout sets in, though, and complacency becomes the norm, you become Right-of-Bang; and when you’re Right-of-Bang, you’re a casualty.

How then can we disentangle an understanding of wellness vis-à-vis Burnout from tactical safety a la situational awareness and bias-for-action? We cannot. There are not two distinct houses of wellness and safety, separate and apart from each other. Rather, wellness and safety are two essential parts of the same body, one informing the other at all times, each impacting the other for better or worse. We cannot be tactically sound, situationally aware or physically safe if we are not well.

I treat many members of law enforcement in individual psychotherapy. I see the clinical consequences of policing; burnout, depression, trauma, anxiety. Some of the work is simply talking while some is more experiential; breathing techniques, guided imagery, dream journaling. It is not uncommon for one of my officers to cast a skeptical glance when I first suggest that we begin developing a formal practice of breathing techniques. After I explain the psychophysiological mechanisms of breathing though, and after I explain that Marine Corps snipers and Navy SEALs incorporate breathing techniques into their training, and after we begin the formal practice, they often come around to understanding how their wellness impacts their safety; how their mind controls their physiological response, and vice versa. Wellness and safety cannot be disentangled.

Stay safe, and be well.