By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
This book could save a life.
I write that sentence after watching thousands of French police officers protesting conditions that have led to a tidal wave of suicides—52 so far this year from among their ranks. They certainly are not alone.
A growing number of professional organizations, researchers, journalists and public-health agencies are calling for more training and other practical resources to save the lives of their colleagues.
A widely cited research report shows that first responders—police and firefighters in this particular study—are more likely to die by suicide than by any threat they encounter in their careers. That’s due to the accumulated impact of hundreds of traumatic incidents many first responders encounter in the course of their career.
So, this week, we are recommending Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responder’s Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart. We also are publishing this interview with the author, Capt. Dan Willis.
(Please, stay tuned: Yet to come this autumn, we will feature a new interview with psychologist Dr. Robert J. Wick, author of many books on trauma and resilience including Night Call: Embracing Compassion and Hope in a Troubled World. Wick’s book underlines principles that are similar to what readers will find in Willis’s newly updated book.)
We also recommend that you organize a small-group discussion of Willis’s new book in your congregation, library or community center. To help you spark interest from friends in hosting such a discussion, here are some recent headlines that show the urgency of these issues:
- Associated Press, August 2019: Police departments confront ‘epidemic’ in officer suicides
- CNN-Chicago, September 2019: Fourth suicide this year on city’s force
- New York Times, September 2019: She begged them to take away his police handgun
- MY-Northwest, September 2019: Firefighter groups tackling the tough issue of suicide
- Scientific American, May 2019: Firefighter suicides rise in wake of deadly wildland blazes
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Ten Facts about Physician Suicide and Mental Health
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 2018 report on behavioral health and trauma among first responders
‘PRACTICAL, EFFECTIVE METHODS’
Although he is best known for his work with police officers, Dan Willis welcomes a wide range of first responders in the opening pages of his book. Standard definitions of “first responders” always have included police, firefighters and often military personnel who are deployed in tragedies.
U.S. Homeland Security has expanded that list further to include all “individuals who in the early stages of an incident are responsible for the protection and preservation of life, property, evidence, and the environment, including emergency response providers, as well as emergency management, public health, clinical care, public works, and other skilled support personnel and equipment officers who provide immediate support services during prevention, response and recovery operations.”
Researchers and educators who have devoted their lives to helping men and women cope with trauma, such as psychologist and author Robert J. Wicks, point out that there are other professionals who share similar challenges. That even longer list can include doctors and sometimes teachers or clergy or other.
Willis opens his book with a similarly broad invitation to readers who find themselves regularly confronting trauma. He lays out the purpose of his book in a concise paragraph:
“There are practical, effective methods to help first responders survive emotionally and to heal their spirits. It is no longer inevitable that these careers will lead to broken lives and irreparable harm. There is absolutely no reason why police officers, as well as firefighters, career military officers, and all other first responders, cannot thrive and be well throughout their careers and retire from a lifetime of noble service with a vibrant mind, body, and spirit. They deserve to enjoy their careers and the rest of their lives in peace, happiness, and good health. They should be able to look back on their careers with pride while looking forward to savoring all the good that’s still to come.”
FROM WARNING SIGNS TO LIFELINES
What’s in this book?
The success of Willis’s book since its first edition in 2014 is proof of the pragmatic value of these 288 pages. That’s also why Willis has now expanded the book, after years of crisscrossing the nation with educational programs. He has now added a couple of chapters, reorganized others and updated some of the data since his first edition. For example, readers now will find thoughtful new chapters on “The Spirituality of Service” and “Brain Injuries Caused by Trauma.”
Reading this book in light of the long-standing work by Wicks and other experts in coping with trauma, I can affirm that Willis is in the mainstream in the advice he provides. What he adds is the authentic voice, and stories, of a lifetime in the trenches of public service.
Willis writes about both the strengths and the vulnerabilities that are present in a vocation that calls men and women to “be consciously aware, purposeful, compassionate and spiritual in our service.” He then writes in plain, helpful language about the steps professionals can take to ensure that they are not suffocating their vocational desire to compassionately serve.
Among the dangers he points out are the tendencies we all share to expect success when we devote all of our energy to a cause. First responders, in particular, often see as many tragic outcomes as they do life-saving ones. Balancing the spiritual vocation to serve with the realization of frequent tragedy becomes a lifelong journey for both the first responders and their friends, family and community.
That’s why his book has chapters, including “Peer Support,” “Support from Home,” and “Effective Use of Chaplain Services.”
‘TRULY A VOCATION OF THE HEART’
“There is a deep spiritual component in this vocation, but we have to balance our lives outside the job, and our expectations while on the job, so that this job does not eat us alive,” he said in our interview.
He continued, “I can tell you this as an absolute fact: This is truly a vocation of the heart, and it is possible to withstand the repeated trauma that first-responders will encounter. The values of selflessness and humble service can be the cornerstones of a fulfilling career. We have to learn the ways to balance our lives so that our hearts are not suffocated by all the trauma we will encounter throughout our careers.”
“So, why publish this second edition?” I asked. “Some of our audience may have the first edition on their shelves already. How is this new second edition different?”
Willis said, “Since the first edition came out, I have traveled all over the country and have learned a lot. This book includes some new chapters, plus a lot of things needed to be updated since the first version five years ago.”
“One thing that is consistent is your message that—while there is more data compiled on suicides among police—these dangers run across all the professions that are on the front lines after tragedies strike,” I said.
“That’s right. It’s harder to get all the data on trauma and suicide among firefighters, because so many of them are volunteers and there’s no standardized reporting procedure in place for many of them. As a result, it’s true: We have better data on police,” Willis said. “But it’s clear to all of us who are trying to respond to this problem that trauma touches many professions. Doctors and nurses who work in emergency medicine, the military, and also other men and women whose skills are needed in response to catastrophes.”
“You’re saying that they share a long-term vocational challenge,” I said. “That challenge is not always triggered by a single big event. In many cases, it’s an accumulation of years of tragedies.”
‘A Powerful Cumulative Effect’
“My message is that it’s not as simple as saying: Let’s focus on the people who responded to one particularly horrible scene. While that one big trauma may be particularly difficult to deal with—my message is that the greater danger is the debilitating effects of all of the smaller cases and scenes we are part of day after day. That has a powerful cumulative effect.”
“So there are many potential readers for this book,” I said. “That means lots of people who read this column today know someone who might benefit from receiving a copy of the book.”
“That’s right,” Willis said.
“Anyone who reads your book will get your message: Compassion ultimately is the solution, not the problem,” I said.
Willis said, “One response to this ongoing, almost daily exposure to trauma—at least in the careers of some first responders—might be to say: Well, we can’t continue to be compassionate. We have to harden our hearts. If we are too compassionate, that will lead to fatigue. But it’s not compassion that is the danger. The real danger comes when we start to isolate ourselves, to become irritable, to deaden our hearts, to stop talking to the people around us, and even to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.”
“That’s a good outline of your chapter on ‘Warning Signs,’ ” I said.
“That’s right,” Willis said.
‘Compassion is the DNA of Service’
He continued, “I say to people that compassion is the DNA of a career in service. And, when I talk about compassion, I relate that to other values: to the desire to be helpful, to act in a selfless way, to serve the public humbly. Altogether, compassion is the breath of life in our professions and, if we understand that correctly, then we realize that compassion ultimately is the key to a long and healthy career.
“In this book and in my classes, we go through many reasons that we can become confused and frustrated. We can lose our balance. For example, we can tie our compassionate response to an unrealistic expectation that we have the power to save everyone. Of course, we don’t. We have to realize that there will be as many tragedies as there are success stories in our work over the years.”
DISCUSSION GROUPS: ‘EVERYONE KNOWS SOMEONE’
I talked with Willis about the value of discussing his book in community groups.
“I can see a lot of value in church-based classes or discussion groups devoting a series of weeks to discussing chapters from this book,” I said. “I can see hospitals offering community discussions of the book, perhaps even public schools or libraries in their community-outreach programs.”
“I certainly encourage that kind of community conversation,” Willis said. “Pretty much everyone, if they stop and think about it, knows someone who could be helped with this kind of information as at least a starting point to dealing with accumulated trauma.
“I hope some people who read this article about the book will respond that way,” he continued. “And here’s another way to think about this: The safety of any community is intrinsically linked to the health and wellness of the first responders who serve that community. When those first responders are struggling, members of the community are likely to feel the effects. So, even if you are not a first-responder yourself, you can still play a helpful role by calling together a discussion group. I hope we see more of that happening across the country.”
Care to read more?
LEARN MORE ABOUT WILLIS’S WORK: His website is FirstResponderWellness.com and on this “about us” page, you can watch a 7-minute video featuring Willis and his new book. That page also includes Willis’s extensive travel schedule for classes and public events. If you have further questions, including inquiries about Willis’s availability, you can contact him through this page. Willis also offers an online course through his website, which he built around a video lessons.
LEARN MORE ABOUT POLICE: One reason we are featuring this Cover Story on Willis and Bulletproof Spirit is that our Front Edge Publishing house has a long-standing commitment to improving community relationships with police and other first-responders. That includes the valuable book, 100 Questions & Answers about Police Officers, which was produced by the Michigan State University School of Journalism—with input from law enforcement professionals. We also have published an inspiring story about the teams of MSU students, The Bias Busters, who have produced these helpful books. If you want to move beyond the volume on police officers to explore more of the Bias Busters’ work, we have a new 2019 “library” of their guides to help community groups nationwide promote a positive awareness of diversity.