In Check – Mental Health Perspectives from 3 SWAT Operators
Jason Lacayo, O2X Instructor and SWAT Operator
I am a Police Officer, SWAT Operator and Emergency Services Unit member of the City of White Plains Police Department, and I have been a police officer for 17 years. I began my career in the NYPD in July of 2005 and transferred to my current department in May of 2007.
Taking care of our mental health is crucial to having a successful career, as well as having a happy and healthy life outside the job. As LEOs we see and experience things that the human psyche is not meant to handle. We experience repeated traumas while at work, and if we are not making sure that we are dealing with those things in a positive manner, they can destroy our careers and relationships with our loved ones.
The topic of Mental Health and seeking help remains incredibly stigmatized within the LEO community. Many LEOs don’t address mental health issues because they are afraid of being seen as weak and incapable and/or fear they’ll lose their jobs and livelihoods. As a result of this we see LEOs suffer in silence, which contributes to the high rates of divorce and suicide within this profession. Not dealing with your emotions and not processing the horrific things we experience at work can also lead to disciplinary action at work, as a result of poor job performance, excessive force complaints, etc. When not dealt with, all of these factors begin to compound and snowball into a situation that some feel is impossible to tackle.
As LEOs we are responsible for ourselves and our own wellbeing. Over the course of my career I have grown and developed not only as a LEO but as a man. I’ve had to make the conscious decision to leave work at work, to talk about the bad days, and to make it a priority to do the things that make me feel good. I am a huge advocate for moving your body, engaging in and maintaining physical exercise, and eating well. Not only will it prolong your life, but it will ensure that you are able to complete your job when someone’s life depends on it. In addition to taking care of myself physically, I practice mindfulness and meditation daily. It’s important to acknowledge and let go of any negative feelings that you are carrying over from the previous day.
We cannot assume that someone else will make sure we are okay or getting the help we need, so we have to make it a point to check on each other and make a conscious effort to do things outside of the job to ensure our own wellbeing.
Ben Toderico, O2X Resilience Specialist, former SWAT Operator
I had the privilege of serving an urban community in a city of 200,000 citizens for a department with 700 officers. During the course of my career, I worked uniform patrol, street level gun and drug enforcement, property crimes, aggravated assault and sex crimes, domestic assault, physical and sexual crimes against children, and on my department’s SWAT Team.
For many, myself included, policing is a calling, a way of life. We do it because it is the right thing to do. If you don’t take care of yourself there is a cost to being a police officer that no amount of money or benefits can offset. You pay with your physical and mental health.
Since I graduated from the academy, in my agency alone, four police officers have taken their own lives. I knew all four. I graduated from the academy with one, two were shiftmates, and the other officer worked on my relief shift. All four had families and were over forty. The cost of life and the job added up and took too much from them.
My assignments, and policing in general, involved exposure to trauma and victims at the worst moments in their life. In addition to the trauma, the responsibility that I felt to the victims taxed my mental health. I reframed mental health as mental fitness. I didn’t know how to work on mental health, but I knew how to work on my physical fitness. Reframing as mental fitness empowered me to understand that I needed to build my mental fitness along with my physical fitness. I needed to be strong to perform the job in both areas. Exercise served to strengthen both fitness categories. Escaping into a run or weight training allowed me to be alone and relax and release the trauma that I had been exposed to from my body as I challenged myself to get stronger.
Talking with someone helped to build my mental fitness, as well. Sometimes the load of the trauma or experience is too great for one person. When the experience is shared with another person the load each person carried is lightened. Toward the end of my career, I investigated crimes against children. During this period, my wife and I had two kids. I saw my own kids in the eyes of my victims, which expanded my empathy, but also increased the personal effect. I developed a relationship with a trusted colleague where we shared our experiences to lighten our own loads and strengthen our mental fitness.
A friend of mine told me to control the things that I could and not to worry about the things that I could not control. Freeing myself of worry about the things that I could not control permitted me to focus on building my mental fitness. I also learned to share the load of the trauma and experiences by talking with a trusted friend that understood the experiences. Building my mental fitness and lightening the load I had to carry allowed me to be strong enough to perform and help others.
Sgt. Ian O’Shields, O2X Instructor and SWAT Operator
I am a 14-year veteran with the Lafayette Indiana Police Department. I have held several titles throughout my career, but I am currently a day-shift patrol sergeant. Before my current assignment, I was the sergeant of our administrative services division.
I have been an operator on our SWAT team since 2009. We are a department of 152 sworn, so specialty units are considered part-time, including SWAT. For the past five years, I have been our primary breacher, but I recently transitioned to shield cover – second in the door.
The focus on officer mental health has been at the forefront of discussions for the last several years, and rightfully so. At this stage of the game, it is well-known why mental health is essential. The mental health of officers impacts everything in their personal and professional lives. The awareness effort has significantly impacted the resources available for officers and their mental health, but mainly on the back end of the issue.
I want to point out the importance of prevention. Police administrators across the country must recognize the importance of investing in their officers’ health and well-being with proactive resources, which will have significant ROI. Proactivity means promoting a healthy lifestyle, which O2X teaches – proper nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress management. We must build solid, physically and mentally resilient officers through early and continued lifestyle education and by providing quality fitness facilities.
I attribute my physical and mental health to the lifestyle I implemented before becoming a police officer and my phenomenal support system. Physical fitness, sleep, and family have always been priorities in my life. I find time to work out every day, strive for 8+ hours of sleep every night, and spend time with my amazing wife and kids. Those three things have been the foundation of a strong mind and body – at least for me. I am confident that if most officers have those three foundational elements in their lives, they will reap the same rewards as me!