Dear American Police Departments,
This letter is a call to action, and it may not be in the way that you think. With all the recent events, like my fellow Americans, I am sick to my stomach. I am sure most of you are, too. There is a lot of injustice occurring to unarmed humans at the hands of people of authority, white people of authority to be exact. Systemic racism is alive and real in this country. These are some of my thoughts on how to address it, systemically.
I am asking for us to have an open conversation—not to point fingers, but to find solutions. I am not just coming to talk about a problem, I am also coming to you with a viable solution. I believe in our Police Officers. Just like the U.S. Navy Seals say when they are in the middle of a mission and sh*t goes wonky, it’s time to “work the problem.” Now more than ever, we need to come together and focus on the solution.
Before I go any further, I want to introduce myself so that you know exactly who I am. I am the granddaughter of a 32-year veteran inner-city firefighter, a daughter of US Army Vietnam Combat Veteran, and a former girlfriend of a Police Officer. I, myself, have spent the last 15 years in the human service field as a mental health therapist working with some of the hardest populations. I have worked as a therapist in a lockdown facility with convicted sex offenders, as a residential house manager/therapist for DOJ juveniles that were all gang-affiliated, and as an in-home therapist in the inner city for And that’s just a few of the positions I’ve held. With all that being said, please know I appreciate the work you do and what you face each and every day. You see people on the worst days of their lives, day in and day out. And yet you continue to show up, ready to put your life on the line for the communities you serve—for a solid amount of years. I truly respect and honor that.
I am sure you are struggling to understand how someone goes from that excitement to help serve the community in the academy to becoming so hardened that they lose sight of emotions and compassion to the point of doing inconceivable actions and harming those that they are sworn to protect and serve. And it doesn’t seem to matter how old someone is or how long they have been on the job either. The answer is simple: they are experiencing compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma or to put it simply, burnout. Burnout is a real thing—this isn’t just a touchy feeling thing that we therapists talk about. Burnout prevents someone from thinking clearly and with an open and kind mind.
Please know, you are not alone. First responders, front-line essential workers, mental health therapists, US Military/Veterans, CO’s—we all intimately know and experience this in our professions. I truly hope you hear me and know that I am coming from a place of love and compassion. I am saying I SEE all of you.
As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I’ve learned to think in systems. Nothing is linear; cause and effect are always at play. As a systems thinker, we also learn that the whole is only as strong as the weakest part. The symptom bearer is just highlighting that the system is not working. Clearly, our Police System is not flourishing the way it could be. I believe it’s because the law enforcement culture as a whole does not promote self-care, mental health, or mindfulness enough. Some departments have adapted with great success, and yet, this is showing us that we need to rise up even more given what is happening.
I believe in humanity. I believe in the goodness of one’s soul. Yes, even after all I have experienced in my career. I believe that each officer that is out there is doing the best they can with the tools that they have at the current moment. But it’s time to expand that toolbox. It’s time to evolve and grow. The system is screaming that better care of police officers need to happen so that they can remember to view humanity through a positive lens when they are out working their beats. Or so that they have the energy to speak up when they see a fellow officer doing something wrong. We all need to be held accountable for our behaviors. At the end of the day, we’re responsible for them, no matter what we are feeling or experiencing on the inside. There is absolutely no excuse for the behaviors and actions that have been displayed.
Will Smith said in his famous video, “It may not be your fault that this happened, but it is your responsibility to heal.” In our professions, it is part of our job to take care of our mental health, body, and spirit. We do not work typical 9-5 jobs. It’s essential for us to be the best version of ourselves when we’re on the job. Our job descriptions should include self-care for the health of the mind, body, and spirit. As a result of us not working typical jobs, that means we have to be different when we are off the clock, too.
When I talk about self-care, I’m talking about going beyond the surface. I know you are doing your best self-care you know how to at this moment. I mean more than going to the gym or doing jujitsu. It’s more than going to blow off steam after your shift at the local bar or having a few beers at your buddy’s house. (I was a whiskey girl and wine drinker, myself.) Self-care is knowing how to get back to baseline, getting your body to a calm state after being in fight or flight mode all day, and training your mind to see the good when you are off the clock. Now, I’m also not saying self-care means turning into one of those people that move to Bali to become a meditation guru, either. I’m talking about learning how to rebalance yourself wherever you are – right here, right now.
I’m inviting you to think about how you’re taking your uniform off, replenishing your soul, and finding that good in life so you can go back to work with the same innocence and bravado you had when you got out of the academy. I am asking this because as a whole if the respect of the American people is going to stay, something needs to be done differently.
As a fellow burnout survivor, I didn’t learn my lesson about burnout easily. Over 14 months, I thought I had a complete black cloud over my head. Anything that could go wrong, went wrong. In that time frame, I was hit by a Mack Dump truck while driving to work (so blessed to be alive and walking), a long term romantic relationship ended, fired from my job and had to move back home in my mid-thirties because I was too much in debt to live on my own. You bet your butt, when I was on the floor, with a bottle of wine, the first night at my parents’ house, I was asking myself, “What in the freaking world was I missing? I teach people how to find their feelings, know their words, and heal. Where did it all go wrong?”
Do you know where it did? It all fell apart when I didn’t take care of me and I just kept on pushing through. I was completely fried – mind, body, and spirit. My mentality was, “I can handle this. This is what I am trained to do.” In all honesty, I had to learn a new way of handling stress, because my old way was clearly not working for me anymore. I had to how to be kind to me.
I have come to learn that burnout means we are exhausted at our core. Fortunately, burnout is treatable once we experience it. It’s also preventable if we have a structure set in place and we are proactive. I know this to be true and factual, not just because I am a therapist. I am also a Graduate Professor on Human Development, Trauma/Shame, and the effects on the brain/human behavior. I believe in it so much, I created a coaching program to help others heal from burnout, find themselves again, and consciously take back their lives with twelve steps called #UndeniableTruth. In addition, I host the #UndeniableTruth podcast to help my fellow human service field workers with burnout. All of this is based on research, my career as a trauma therapist, and my own comeback journey from burnout.
This isn’t therapy, where we rehash the past. This is a way of life from this point forward; no diagnosing, only a safe space to learn this new way of being. The reason for no diagnosing is because I don’t think we need to shame ourselves for being burnt out. We simply need to learn a different way of handling stress.
As a change agent, a merchant of hope and as a disruptor, when something isn’t happening, I tend to speak up, loudly. I make a lot of noise for being only 5’ tall. So if I can make a stir, so can you! I’m inviting you to get the attention of your administration and get them to start creating a culture of self-care, mental health, and mindfulness. I am also saying to those that are in a position of authority – how are you helping to create the change for your officers? IT’S TIME!! It’s time to take better care of our officers so they can stop hurting innocent people when they are doing their jobs. The entire system is accountable, from the top all the way to the bottom.
These are my #undeniabletruth thoughts. I hope I planted a seed, knowing there IS a solution, a way to create much-needed change. As an American, thank you for service, for continuing to serve and protect. I appreciate all that you do. I’m also respectfully saying, it’s time for the culture to shift within the departments so that burnout is no longer tolerated and is no longer the norm—starting today. For if we know anything, it’s that burnout doesn’t allow us to think clearly. We can’t be kind humans when we’re stressed out.
Sending love and light,
Erica Cuni “The Burnout Coach”