How To Survive A Professional Ambush


by Marla Friedman, Psy.D., P.C.

Dr. Marla Friedman
Dr. Marla Friedman

I started my career in mental health in 1979. I had graduated with a shiny fresh degree in psychology, though I had more hours in studio art and art history than in psychology. Unfortunately, my interest in art was limited by my lack of talent. I also noticed that being dead was a big career builder in the art world. That was less appealing. So ultimately I figured I could have a career in psychology, which I loved and keep art as a hobby.

I’ve always had this image that when as I was born, the doctor pulled me out, smacked my butt and said, “it’s a girl, then thumped my head and said, oh, and a psychologist.”

I was raised in a chaotic family and felt sure there was a better way to do things. I learned later that normal families do not produce good clinicians and very crazy ones do not either. I was raised in a medium crazy family. Good catch on that one!

My father, a very bright man, told me that the structure of a cell and the characteristics of the universe were very similar. He said, think about this, “what if the whole world as we know it exists in the cell on the thumb of an ordinary man just walking down the street.” Never tell that to an obsessive, and existentially nervous seven year old.

Still I realized early I had a lot of reading to do on many subjects. So I spent most of my time doing that. By 12, I was reading Freud and Jung not to mention Nancy Drew and all the crime related literature I could find. I thought if I could read everything I would be well prepared for what was to come. Oh silly girl!

Okay, back to the future, I couldn’t wait to encounter all the cases I learned about in school. I literally loved the field from the get go, especially the bizarre disorders. Hebephrenic schizophrenics, multiple personality disorders, unusual phobias, you name it, I was game. Did I mention naive?

I was young and inexperienced both personally and professionally. I took the first job I was offered. I was thrilled. When filling out the application it asked for my hobbies, which I thought was odd at the time but I put in art and sign language, as I was an obedient student. I was immediately contacted by a 120-bed psychiatric hospital, which housed one of the few mental health programs for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired in the country. I considered this the best thing that could ever happen to me. I stayed there for seven years and was incredibly fortunate to work on every unit with hearing and deaf patients including, pediatric, pre-adolescent, adolescent, adult, substance abuse and even spent a year in the Personality Lab, providing testing to every incoming patient.

The best part, beside the exposure to every diagnostic category imaginable and a complete education in psychopharmocology was the collegial atmosphere of the staff. We worked with violent patients, so we were bonded to each other. We counted on each other to be there in an emergency. Everyone was supportive, cooperative and helpful. There was never any competition. We made sure everyone was safe. We still see each other today. So that was my experience with my mental health peers, and I could never imagine anything different.

In the 1980’s (let’s leave my age out of this) was the first time I had any interaction with law enforcement. I was tasked with going to local PDs (usually at 3 in the morning) and finding placements for runaway adolescents. This opened my eyes to the possibilities available to immerse myself in police culture and then formally re-train in criminal justice, homicide investigation and the mental health needs of law enforcement. I moved into private practice and included 1st responders in my practice. I knew at the time I wanted a long term career as a psychologist, so I always limited the number of patients I saw in each category. I was thinking high variety, lower chance of burn-out.

I was lucky throughout school, practicums, internships and jobs (except for the rare exception) to have incredibly talented and generous supervisors, mentors and peers. Most of them were at the top of their game. Since that time I have enjoyed a successful solo private practice. The headaches of being my own boss were outweighed by my ability to treat the most incredible people and still love my job.

So far it all sounds good right? Well up to this point people who knew me would describe me as a bookworm, who preferred not to join groups or engage in public speaking unless I couldn’t avoid it. Still anxious and obsessive with a strong belief in doing the right thing, and the false belief that life is essentially fair. I marched forward.

I decided to start taking more risks, trying new things and was eventually voted Chair of an important committee within the law enforcement community. Two psychologists made it clear that they wanted the position regardless of the vote. That was the first time I was exposed to psychologists who were competitive, territorial, mean spirited and working for financial gain only. I was bullied, threatened and misrepresented by an early career psychologist who wanted a bite at the apple without earning the position. Fortunately, most of these transmissions were done through e-mail, mail or phone, so I have a record of all of it. Did I mention that sometimes I am still naive?

My mistakes were many. For the first year I didn’t tell anyone. I should have reported the ethical breeches and lack of professionalism right away. My goals for the committee were two-fold. 1. Assess the needs of the Chiefs of Police and then develop programs to meet those needs. 2. Have law enforcement at every level become comfortable with psychologists so they would value our services.

I was afraid if I told anyone within the association I would be losing the hard earned trust and support I had gained with so many of the chiefs. I had worked so long and diligently for law enforcement to see psychologists as valuable assets . I felt trapped and betrayed by my own profession. Finally, I contacted the confidential services of the ethics committee of the IACP and received excellent advice about how to minimize the impact of the personality types I was dealing with. I have followed that advice. I started confiding in peers and family. I sought consultation with other professionals. When I received a threatening e-mail I no longer read it but passed it along to a professional peer. I had a plan that was reasonable and doable. I felt better.

Too many times as psychologists we forget the best thing we can do is confide in another human being, basically get some of the help from others that we usually provide our patients. “Physician heal thyself” isn’t a good motto for us to live by. Reach out to others and let them heal you when you are in a professional ambush. Ask for support. Trust the mostly good apples in our profession to give you the help you seek.

About the Author: Marla Friedman, Psy.D. PC, is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Immediate Past Chair of the Police Psychological Services Section for the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. In this capacity she established the “Hey Doc” column and “Interview with the Chief of Police” feature for Command Magazine as well as “Read This Book.” She had an article included in the recently released book, Police Suicide-Is Police Culture Killing Our Officers? by Dr. Ron Rufo.

Dr. Friedman also developed the “CHIEFS LEAD THE WAY” protocol as a Top-Down Approach to Addressing Police Trauma and Suicide. She has been published in Police Chief Magazine-The Voice of law Enforcement for the International Chiefs of Police. She is proud to be on the Board of Directors for Badge of Life, the premier national program for mental health and safety for law enforcement.

Dr. Friedman has specifically trained in Offender Profiling, Practical Homicide Investigation, Interview and Interrogation and Detection of Deception. She has worked on missing person cases and cold case homicide investigations to meet the needs of municipal police agencies. She has over 30 years of clinical experience and specializes in the treatment of anxiety, depression, PTSD and sexual health. First responders, survivors of violent crime, animal attack victims, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, (as she is fluent in Sign Language) and “accidental killers” are also seen in her Wheaton office.

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