Lean on Me: The importance of social support for police officers.

I fancy myself a bridge between researchers on the one hand, and us lab rat cops on the other. As I’ve said before, academics love to study police officers. Society as a whole finds us interesting, as evidenced by our love of cop shows. We’re captivated by the Bad Lieutenant. Not too many people would want to inhabit his skin, but he’s sure fun to watch.

Wouldn’t it be great if us officers could benefit from the research findings of others? Wouldn’t it be great if all those correlation coefficients and pie charts were somehow translated into practical life lessons, available to those of us who get dirty for a living? I think so too. So, here’s a real gem social scientists have rooted out for us. I want YOU to benefit from. Actually, there are two pieces of information you should know.

First, you should know that the tendency to be stiff-upper-lippers is part of the police personality. YES, there is a police personality. You can’t just go drag a hundred knuckleheads off the street, give ‘em guns and badges and tell ‘em to go to work. We’re a type. One personality characteristic that agencies like in potential new hires is “rugged individualism.” That’s fine. However, we also tend to be ISOLATIVE. We’re very WASPY, which is to say we keep things inside, don’t like to be all touchy feely or get into other’s business.

"Ed was the kind of man who wouldn't impose on anybody."

These were the words of Don Helms, a retired Baltimore police sergeant who works as a chaplain for the Fraternal Order of Police union. He was speaking yesterday at a funeral service for Edward William Eldridge Jr., the retired city officer who took his own life last month and had no known family and no close friends.

I pulled this off the internet a few months back. The story goes on to note the precipitating event for this officer’s suicide appeared to have been that he had nobody to take him to a medical appointment. According to the reporter, officers from the local precinct had taken the retiree to his medical appointments in the past, but this time his caretaker would need to wait with him at the hospital for a procedure. The retired officer apparently felt too embarrassed to ask an officer to wait at the hospital for him.

Let’s not pretend any suicide can boil down to something so simple. Undoubtedly, there were many factors that led up to this tragedy. But here’s where that gem comes into play. In the literature, it’s called “social support.”

If there were only one tip I could give a fellow officer for how to stay emotionally healthy through a police career, it would be “find fellow officers you trust and LEAN ON THEM.” Not every day, but when you need them, lean on them. Talk to them, open up, vent, cry, laugh. Ask them to take you to your appointment AND WAIT FOR YOU. This isn’t too congruent with the stiff upper lip mentality is it? But you know what? You already got the job, so throw that shit out the window. Really.

I can’t tell you how many good things (job satisfaction, reduced perceived stress, less heart disease, diabetes, increased resilience) have been connected to those officers who use social support. Researchers have questionnaires which actually measures this construct. If I could boil it down to the very basics I would say that, from a health perspective, you do NOT want to be low on the social support scale.

Some of you are now saying to yourselves, “I’ve got friends at work, so I’m cool with the social support thing.” Not so fast. Social support is not going to the bar, getting soused and talking shit about your co-workers and administrators. Social support is more than simply having friendly people to talk to at work. “Support” here means the other person is lifting you up somehow. It means you share a burden with a fellow human. That can be very difficult for us, but if we want to thrive in life we need to move out of our comfort zone a bit.

Police officers are generally high functioning types, so most of the time we don’t need social support. Sometimes, however, we go through divorces. Sometimes we become worried about our drinking, we have nightmares, we get depressed, or anxious or we feel angry and want to bash someone’s head in. How do I know that? Because the government still hasn’t figured out how to make police robots so they still have to hire us human beings.

It’s the times we NEED support but don’t reach out and get it that bad things happen. We get sick, we commit suicide, we become fully ensconced in our sex, gambling or alcohol addiction.

The best way to develop a social support system at work is to be available to others. That’s the real beauty of it. It’s a two way street. I’m fortunate enough to have a number of people at my job that I could pull aside and reach out to. I try to do the same when I’m called upon to provide support. It feels REALLY good to be a support to another person. My number one support dude at work recently told me - with a tear in his eye - that his being able to support me in my time of need was actually really healing for HIM. There’s a paradox for you.

You’re a cop. That means you’re a responsible, strong, smart individual. You protect other people for a living. PLEASE don’t forget to protect yourself.