A video for wellness reform: ‘PTSD911’ By: Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

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The first thing on the screen of a new documentary on first responder PTSD is the warning “may be disturbing to some viewers.” Most police officers would consider that more of an invitation than a warning, but the 90-minute video does bring the viewer face to face with some unpleasant realities.

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The move toward mental health and resilience that I call wellness reform is yet to gel as a profession-wide standard of practice. Police leaders and advocates of maintaining mental fitness can find helpful perspectives in the documentary “PTSD911.”

The work mainly follows three PTSD survivors, one from fire, one from law enforcement and one from dispatch, but incorporates expert commentary from mental health professionals and first responder leaders.

Here are four reasons you should invest the time to watch and discuss “PTSD911”:

  1. The stories you are about to see are true. Real heroes, real world, real struggles. Where the film leaves these three is not as rosy as we might want since they all lost their careers, but they are survivors with a lot to teach us.
  2. For those who haven’t quite grasped the biological realities of stress and trauma injury, the professional commentary is foundational. For those who have acquainted themselves with PTSD, the commentary is fresh and helpful. Combating the idea that stress injuries to the brain occur only in the weak-minded is essential to embedding mental health into the first responder culture.
  3. The video helps the law enforcement profession by urging integrated mental wellness principles as part of essential training for first responders. Beyond agencies recognizing symptoms of PTSD and providing therapeutic services, life-long skills development must be an essential part of basic and continued training.
  4. The video models normalizing prevention, recognition and treatment of PTSD as part of the professional culture of first responders.

In 1943, allied troops invaded the island of Sicily and wrested it from the axis powers in a major operation of WW2. Lieutenant General George Patton was visiting wounded soldiers from the action and encountered a soldier with no apparent physical wounds. Incensed by the soldier’s apparent cowardice while his comrades were fighting, Patton slapped the soldier and berated him. A few days later, the general encountered another soldier suffering from what was then known as shell shock, and delivered another scathing criticism and another slap in the face. Patton was ordered to apologize to the men by General Eisenhower, but the opinion of the public and congress was divided between support and disdain.

It would be good to report how far we’ve come from those days, but the reality is that the stigma of character flaw as an element of PTSD still exists. As a Police1 contributor for over 15 years, this writer has seen their leadership in writing and publishing on the topic of wellness and stress in regularly featured articles and training material. It is important to celebrate the progress of wellness reform from dealing with job stress by stopping by for a few beers after work, to a few hours of the academy on stress management, to critical incident debriefings, to peer group support and employee resources.

As disjointed as these efforts are they are steps toward integrated care and prevention of mental stress injury. Shortened life spans, suicide, substance abuse and fractured relationships can no longer be considered a cost of doing business in the emergency services field. No one program or service will solve the problem. “PTSD911” introduces hope for new treatments, a culture change to the acceptance of wellness as a professional standard, and basic and ongoing in-service training to develop skills for resilience and recovery from cumulative trauma exposure.

Since knowledge is essential to removing barriers to getting help for PTSD-related challenges, having officers view and discuss this documentary can open up more opportunities for positive growth in keeping officers safe, inside and out.

Conversation starters

After viewing the documentary, here are some possible conversation starters:

  • What steps could you take if you sensed that a colleague was in crisis?
  • Did the video help encourage you to seek assistance if you had symptoms of a stress injury?
  • What new information or perspective did the documentary present?
  • Have attitudes toward PTSD and mental health changed since you were hired?
  • Is there a career-threatening stigma attached to mental health treatment in your agency?
  • How well do you think the three first responders profiled in the documentary represent first responders dealing with PTSD?

“PTSD911” is currently being screened around the country. Click here to find out how to screen the documentary at your agency.