Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Monday, June 15, 2015

Culture Of Mental Health

This is a really interesting piece on why some cops explode on relatively innocent people.

While the author puts this within police culture, I think it's a broader part of American culture.  We stigmatize people who need mental health breaks.  The very term is used as a punch-line.  We work longer hours than almost any comparable country in the world.  Our lives take place in environments profoundly alien to the ones we evolved in.  Clocks are barely two centuries old and yet our lives are driven by them.  True cities are maybe three or four hundred years old and yet most of us now live in or near them.

The problem is that the "Warrior Culture" the author alludes to in his piece is part of a culture that arose over centuries of clan and family based social organizations.  You defended your small group from other small groups.  Violence was sporadic and often non-lethal.  Warfare was intended to be ritualistic as much as driven by a conquering urge.

But today, we use that same culture in cities of millions and a landscape littered with terribly lethal weaponry.  "To serve and protect" is a worthy model, unless you don't recognize who it is you're supposed to serve and protect.  That makes your job impossible.  You come to serve and protect your fellow cops at times more than the citizenry you are policing.  Recent criticisms of police will only exacerbate that impulse.

Add to that the fact that you spend most of your days dealing with the broken, damaged and angry pieces of a society, and you can understand the stress police officers face.  As a police officer, you're often first to every thing: fires, traffic accidents, suicides, rapes, child abuse...  How are you not damaged by that?

How do you go from cataloging the horrors of a suicide to trying to break up a rowdy pool party?  How do you treat those party-goers with the respect and decency they deserve when you can still close your eyes and see death?

The military is trying to cope with the effects of PTSD in the soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.  Forty years after Saigon fell, they don't want a repeat of the Vietnam veterans who never fully came home from the jungle.  Hopefully, they can find a way to bring some of what they find to our police at home.  Too often, our police come to feel like an occupying force in minority communities.  That's toxic for everyone.

I have no doubt that many of our police officers struggle daily with the stress of their job.  I have no doubt, too, that few will talk about or admit that there are days when the job can be too much for them.

How do we - as a society - help those we entrust with public safety to bridge the gap from where they are to where they need to be?  How do we acknowledge that we live in one of the safest times in our recent history when it comes to violent crime, yet also acknowledge that this requires police to be vigilant?  And how do we make that vigilance bearable?

When police commit yet another act of violence against (mostly) minorities, we routinely get stories of officers killed in the line of duty as a way of shielding police from criticism.  Yet an officer is much more likely to take his or her own life than to be killed on the job.

In a system that isn't hopelessly broken, we could be able to reconcile those that want to value police lives with those who want a police force that protects and serves the entire community.  We could do that by changing the general culture of mental health in this country, while focusing on the specifics of police work.  We could make the burdens we ask police to bear more bearable.

We could....

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