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Fight or Flight: How to Cope in the Aftermath of Stressful, Life-Threatening Situations

By Rob Stallworth

It seems like a simple concept when faced with imminent danger: You either fight for your life, or you run away in order to possibly increase the odds of preserving your life. Being placed in a “flight or fight” position can increase your heart rate and pump blood to your muscles in order for you to engage the threat or get out of Dodge…quickly! Your focus, as a correctional officer, is to survive and make it to the end of your shift, the same way you got there—in one piece!

Then it’s over: You survived a traumatic experience. Now what? What happens when you get home and the “stress” of the situation finally wears off?

Do you talk to someone about what happened?

Or do you suppress those emotions in order to appear strong in the face of adversity?

Unfortunately, many try to appear strong, but the reality is that the thoughts, feelings, and emotions you are experiencing can often lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

[Related Article: Suicide Among Corrections Officers: It’s Time for an Open Discussion]

I attended the Southern States Correctional Association’s (SSCA) conference and sat in on a training session about what to do as a law enforcement officer in crisis. The presenter, Pat Strode, from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, spoke at length about some of the signs of PTSD:

  • Recurrent images or flashbacks
  • Avoiding activities, places, or people that remind you of the traumatic experience
  • Outbursts of irritability or anger

Do any of these sound familiar? Of course, these are just a few in a litany of things to look out for, but the last one, the outburst of irritability or anger, is the one that resonates most with me.

Years ago, when I was still supervising gang members, I was approached by my supervisor about an issue which could have been quickly resolved with a yes or no answer. However, due to my inability to process the stress I was feeling at the time and the buttons that were pushed, I snapped!

As a result of my outburst and a few short, aggressive words, I found myself under investigation and eventually faced a five-day suspension, without pay. There’s more to the story, of course, but I think you get the point.

I received help through the department’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) because I was “voluntold” to get it or I could lose my opportunity for advancement or, quite frankly, my career. It was the best thing for me and during these counseling sessions, I realized a number of things about myself that helped me become a better person, a greater asset to the organization, and less of a donkey!

But what about those officers who don’t go to any type of treatment (yes, the “t” word) for fear of reprisal, being stigmatized, or appearing weak? They and their loved ones could be placed at even greater risk.

Also during the SSCA training, we watched a video called “Code 9 Officer Needs Assistance.” This documentary is co-produced by the wife of a retired state trooper who is suffering from PTSD and shows the not-so-bright side of working in law enforcement.

Code 9 Officer Needs Assistance – The Documentary from Dangerous Curves Productions on Vimeo.

The focus of the video is on police officers; however, the message can certainly be applied to correctional officers. After all, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that correctional officers have “one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses, often resulting from confrontations with inmates.” The argument from the point of view of a correctional officer is that they handle violence on a regular basis by dealing with inmates, and oftentimes do so without lethal weapons or significant back up.

Such regular violence leads to higher rates of PTSD and associated issues that can lead to domestic violence, alcoholism, and suicide, if symptoms go untreated. It’s a harsh reality, yes, but one that bears the need for public discussion. As retired Sergeant, Ron Clark, of the Connecticut State Police says in the documentary: “PTSD is a deadly mental health (issue)…incorrectly handled, it can kill somebody in a heartbeat.”

If you or someone you know suffers from PTSD, don’t turn away. There are ways to get help through your employer or you can find out more information by logging onto the National Alliance on Mental Illness. This may be your one chance to stand and fight.

Robert Stallworth_croppedAbout the Author: Rob Stallworth is a former Deputy Chief Probation and Parole Officer for the Virginia Department of Corrections. His career spans more than 15 years with the department, where he has served in various positions such as Gang Specialist and Academy Adjunct Instructor. Rob is currently a member of American Military University’s Public Safety Outreach Team.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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