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Police psychologist calls for regular checkups

Members of the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team in B.C. play floor hockey to exert energy and de-stress. Engaging in physical activity can help police officers better manage stress. Credit: IHIT

Even after years of daily exercise and healthy eating, some members can still be affected by certain traumatic events they experience in the field. Mallory Procunier spoke with Dr. David Lingley, a psychologist who works with many of E Division's integrated operational teams, about how these underused health care professionals can help.

What are some key pieces of advice you give members to help them cope with unimaginable events?
Regardless of how impactful the trauma is, the majority of them put most of their effort into trying to avoid remembering any of it. Logically, that makes sense, but the more someone does that, the more opportunity that trauma has to take hold in other ways and to show up in other aspects of their lives. The biggest challenge I have when members come to see me is to get them to face the trauma head-on. Therapeutically, that's going to be more effective for them in the long run.

What do you do when members are really reluctant to go back to that place in their minds?
The first stage is trying to establish enough of a rapport and relationship with them that there's a degree of trust. If they don't trust that what I'm saying has some validity and that I'm able to understand the stress the trauma has created for them, then they're not going to follow my lead. Oftentimes, it's not hard to get them to begin to recall it. Initially, in treatment, what I try and do is basically have them recall it in more manageable pieces. A lot of times, I'll encourage someone to discuss an aspect of it, but then if I see that they're becoming too overwhelmed by it and I think it's becoming more detrimental to them, then I have ways to pull them back into the here and now. It's kind of like, psychologically, taking a bit of a break from it.

Why do you think they're hesitant to come to you in the first place?
Somehow, there's still a huge stigma associated with going to see a psychologist. To some people, it might mean that they're weak or that there's something wrong with them. They might think that somebody else will think they're crazy because, in their mind, that's really the only type of people who see people like me. But there are far more members who are coming in far more easily and sooner than there were 15 years ago when I first started to do this. That's the word-of-mouth situation. There probably is more discussion and more encouragement that's going on at the detachment level now about how this is a good thing and that it could help. I think, without a doubt, that's been a step in the right direction.

After they come and see you, what can members do to cope with their symptoms?
Try and adopt some healthy lifestyle changes. If they can engage in some sort of physical activity, even if it's taking the dog for a walk a couple of times a week, that might assist them in terms of being able to manage stress a bit better. But along with that, I encourage members to be more open and more self-disclosing with a confidant about what is going on with them. It's not unusual that I'll talk to a member who is having some really upsetting nightmares on a regular basis but would never say anything to his or her spouse. I also try and give members different strategies to help them recognize when stress is accumulating and what they can do to manage it a bit better.

What can you say to members about the importance of going?
One analogy I've used is to ask members how often, over the course of a year, they would take their vehicle to be serviced. I say, by comparison, they could benefit from coming in and having some type of psychological tune-up. Members are exposed to things so far above and beyond what the average individual is exposed to, so it's critical to see a psychologist. You need to look at taking care of yourself in different ways and you need to be OK with that.

Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express (No. 6, 2013).

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