by Syd Gravel
In 1988, over 25 years ago, as a constable, I was one of the founding members of a group of police officers who decided to help each other as peers. Each of us had either fatally shot a person as a result of our duty to our citizens, or been shot and survived.
As a result of this work and my subsequently becoming a sergeant and then staff sergeant before retirement I have often been asked by other front line supervisors what they need to look for and be aware of if one of their members is showing signs of not reacting well to trauma.
The answer is not complex.
First, education is an important first step. It is important for every front line supervisor to be aware of the most common symptoms known when people may be reacting poorly to trauma. They are:
- Flashbacks, nightmares, re-living the event
- Withdrawal, “numbing” out, isolation
- Hyper-arousal, panics, startle responses
- Insomnia, rages, paranoia, confusion
- Drinking/drugs, recklessness
- Suicidal behaviour
Second, now having said that, I can tell you that I am a survivor who lived and demonstrated many of those symptoms over the years. And many of the officers I was peer to also demonstrated many of those symptoms and signs as well…. but almost NEVER at work! So, when a supervisor says that they never saw anything to indicate to them that their member was reacting poorly to trauma, I tend to believe them, if that is all the supervisor did to educate themselves and be prepared.
Now, in addition to those well researched and documented clinical symptoms and signs, we as survivors came up with our own list of what to look for that was more work related. These are signs and symbols that we saw demonstrated ourselves at work that supervisors could look for and more likely see. They are:
- Loneliness – disconnect
- Loss of self-confidence – second guessing
- Loss of emotional control
- Loss of sleep – appetite affected.
- Obsession over public perspective
- Fear of loss of peer support or respect
- Fear of hurting or not protecting family.
But even those were sometimes hard for supervisors to see, unless they had a very close working relationship to their members and that is not always the case, what with transfers and re-assignments. It was easier for us as peers to see, since we were living it, but not so much all the time for supervisors. Which leads to my next point and that is the importance of the relationship between supervisors and member’s families.
Third, and this is the absolute best way to help a member who is not reacting well to trauma is:
- SPEAK WITH THE SPOUSE or OTHER CLOSE FAMILY MEMBER! (whomever is in a relationship with the member.)
Survivors cannot hide from their family members. They can hide it from their children if the spouse co-operates in hiding the behaviour. For example, if I numbed out or withdrew, or went on a drinking binge my spouse would often simply tell the children that “Dad isn’t feeling well. Let’s leave him alone so he can get better.”
However, she was the one who knew I was not doing well. She saw every sign and symptom and knew what I was afraid of…and that was being discovered at work as not being able to handle it. I wouldn’t go to a psychologist, because that would be admitting I had a problem. It was my spouse who led me by the hand to meet my doctor and eventual friend and introduced us to each other and asked him to help me and told me to talk to him. She sat in the hallway of the doctor’s office waiting for us to finish our first meeting, and both the doctor and I agreed that we had better do something or face the wrath of that woman sitting in the hallway.
If any supervisor would have spoken to my wife at any time during the entire first 3 to 4 months after my event and simply asked her, “Is Syd doing ok?” they would have received an earful of things being not right with me. What they kept doing was asking me…”Are you ok, Syd?” and guess what my answer always was….”Sure, I’m ok, why would you ask?”
So, here is where supervisors need to work at this. Their responsibility to their member does not stop at work or simply knowing who they are. If they truly want to know that their members are healthy they must have a sincere and honest working relationship with the spouses or immediate family members as well. Sufficient enough to at least have a line of communication available should their reaction to trauma be a concern.
Combined with that is a commitment by the organization of doing the right thing for the member. Many members would be horrified if a spouse told their supervisor that they were not well and that reflects on the trust the members have or don’t have on how well they would be treated by the organization. That trust has to be there and proven. For me, it turned out to be a positive experience, though I was initially horrified that she had shared my secret behaviour with my boss. I happened to have good bosses and peers willing to help and they helped my spouse and I to eventually get me back on my feet. So it can be done right. My supervisors were also a bit taken aback when she spoke with them as they had taken me for my word and trusted that I was indeed doing well. So they were also shocked to hear I was living a lie to them.
Also, the worst thing that can happen is when a spouse, in desperation, finally does ask for help and their plea for help is ignored. That is just wrong in all aspects.
So, to sum up, the keys to a good supervisor in addressing trauma within the workplace are that they are:
- Respected for their experience and management style
- Trustworthy, respected, confidential
- Will not abandon their member
- Connected and supportive to the Family
- Understands the injury
You can be aware of all the clinical findings out there for all they are worth, but if you are not talking to the family…you may never know…and here is what you, as a supervisor will be saying should things really go bad for the member – “I simply did not see anything to cause me any concern”.
And that, is a reflection of how poorly you managed your member.
About the Author: Syd Gravel is a retired Staff Sergeant from the Ottawa (Canada) Police Service and is one of the founding fathers of Robin’s Blue Circle (established in 1988), a post-shooting trauma team that assists officers work their way through the trauma of death or near-death work related incidents.
Syd is an over 25 year PTSD survivor and refers to himself as a healthy survivor of PTSD as he has learned to live with it and continue to be productive in spite of it. As an 8 year veteran and constable of the police service he developed PTSD. It was precipitated by his shooting of what he thought was an armed robber during an armed robbery response. In spite of his PTSD, he went on to be promoted to the ranks of sergeant then staff sergeant during the following 23 years of his continued police work as a front line patrol officer and subsequently in charge of all recruitment and training for the last 10 years of his career.
In 2007, for the many years of service to his peers, his devotion to training and recruiting and helping so many through their times of need, he was nominated by his peers for the Order of Merit in Policing, Canada and received the award from then Governor General Michael Jean.
Syd has written two books since 2013 – “56 Seconds” and “How to Survive PTSD and Build Peer Support” both available via Amazon.com and his website. He is presently working on his third book, due out summer of 2014.
Read Syd’s other writings:
What I Wish I Had Known