La Mesa, California, police captain Dan Willis is a former homicide investigator and SWAT commander who has developed wellness programs and specializes in providing emotional-survival and wellness training to first responders. We hope you’ll enjoy this Q&A with Dan that introduces his new book, Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responder’s Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart.
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Who are America’s emergency first responders?
They are our country’s everyday heroes, ordinary men and women who courageously sacrifice and selflessly serve their communities by protecting and giving life to the rest of us. They are our police officers, firefighters, paramedics, emergency dispatchers, military personnel, and hospital trauma workers, to whom we owe our lives. They do the work that no one else is willing or able to do, at often significant personal cost. They safeguard our way of life, freedom, and security.
Explain the current state and welfare of America’s emergency first responders.
More police officers kill themselves every year than die in the line of duty, and suicide is a significant problem for all emergency first responders. Approximately 15 to 18 percent of police officers (120,000) have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and many more tens of thousands suffer from acute, debilitating stress, emotional problems, and serious physical ailments such as heart disease, diabetes, circulatory and digestive disorders, and sleep disorders. Due to the nature of their work, many first responders become isolated, abuse alcohol or prescription drugs, suffer serious personal relationship problems, and/or are depressed with a dreaded sense of hopelessness.
As of February 2013, twenty-two military veterans, active and retired, commit suicide every day. Only about 3 percent of police agencies have a suicide awareness/prevention program. Our first responders are suffering and need the kind of hope and help Bulletproof Spirit
Why are first responders susceptible to depression, PTSD, and emotional suffering? Isn’t that just part of the job?
The vast majority of first responders were drawn to these professions due to their compassion and desire to help and serve others. Unfortunately, this often makes them susceptible to the barrage of emotional turmoil experienced in the day-to-day immersion in fighting evil, comforting victims, and dealing with constant dangers, tragedies, and the suffering of others.
First responders are human and they can hurt, suffer, scar, and bleed like everyone else. First responders serve with their hearts, but a human’s heart and soul can only take so much before it becomes adversely affected.
First responders experience more human suffering, violence, and danger in a week than most people experience in their entire lifetime. Emotional suffering, trauma, and depression should never be “just part of the job” — we owe our first responders much more than that.
How did you become interested in or aware of the need for emotional-survival training and wellness practices?
I clearly remember the very moment: in 1996, after only seven years as a police officer, I was at my stepdaughter’s eighth birthday party. As I sat off to the side, I suddenly realized I felt nothing. I did not feel connected to anyone, and I did not feel any happiness — just indifference and an eerie emptiness inside. I realized for the first time that I had lost the ability to feel and to connect with others — and it scared me. I did not want to become a victim of my profession like so many others. I was slowly becoming someone my loved ones no longer recognized. I had to do something to sustain life within my spirit before I lost it for good.
You write about how the spirit is the most critical component of a first responder. What do you mean by that?
Our spirit is everything about us that is not of our mind or body; it is our character, integrity, beliefs, motivation, compassion; our ability to cope and persevere, our desire to help others, our ability to sacrifice and be giving. It is what makes us human and able and willing to serve others. The wellness of one’s spirit is directly related to the wellness of one’s mind and body. If the spirit is well, trained, and protected, then it is not depressed, traumatized, or suffering in any way.
A first responder’s spirit is the foundation of their overall health and quality of life. It is what allows them to persevere while selflessly serving others in a compassionate and giving manner. If a first responder has a damaged spirit and is suffering inside, they will tend to become self-destructive and unable to protect and serve the rest of us, leaving our communities vulnerable.
What, if any, training do first responders receive to counteract the significant negative effects of the job?
There is essentially little, if any, emotional-survival training for emergency first responders. Traditional training has focused almost exclusively on the mind and body, but there has historically been no training of any kind for the most important aspect of a first responder — their spirit. It is imperative that first responders get the kind of critical information that I present in Bulletproof Spirit
, to train them how to more effectively process acute stress and trauma, how to prevent or mitigate the symptoms of PTSD, how to enhance coping skills, how to survive emotionally, and how to nurture, protect, and sustain their spirit within.
Over my twenty-five years’ experience working as a police officer and developing my agency’s wellness program, I have found specific, positive, and very effective ways to practice emotional survival and to protect and sustain the spirit within. Bulletproof Spirit
describes these tools for promoting the wellness and healing of those who serve — and it will give them hope.
What are the warning signs that a first responder, or anyone suffering from trauma and acute stress, is in danger?
There are numerous specific warning signs that should serve to alert an emergency first responder or family members to the fact that the first responder is becoming a victim of their profession. They include:
• Isolation: just wanting to be left alone all the time, not wanting to interact with others or to be involved with family or decision making
• Irritability and anger: developing a short fuse, flying off the handle about things that never use to bother them, everyone around them walking on eggshells due to how they might suddenly react
• Difficulty sleeping: 40 percent of first responders have serious sleeping disorders
• Emotional numbness: the loss of the ability to feel
• Lack of communication: the tendency to withhold everything and just try to deal with things on their own
• Cynicism/distrust/loss of work satisfaction: the feeling that “everyone” is a criminal, extreme cynicism, distrust of everyone, even family members
• Substance abuse: drinking or taking drugs as a perceived need or habit
• Suicidal thoughts
Due to the nature of their work, first responders inherently tend to become adversely affected by the job. As with cancer, the effects are insidious, and slowly, eventually, they tend to consume the first responder’s quality of life — unless the first responder learns effective methods to counteract them.
Any one of these warning signs should be a significant red flag, an alarm for the first responder to focus on emotional survival before it is too late.
Why is it essential for everyone to be concerned about the health and wellness — the emotional survival — of their community’s first responders?
The safety, security, and well-being of any community is directly related to the health and well-being of the first responders who serve it. A first responder with a damaged spirit is significantly hindered in their ability to provide consistent professional service. All of us are affected by the wellness of those we depend on for our life and safety; that is why it is so critical for the information in Bulletproof Spirit to be known and practiced, since ultimately we will all benefit.
What can be done to protect and ensure the survival of our emergency first responders?
First of all, everyone needs to realize that first responders are neither superhumans nor robots; they are humans with a heart and spirit. As such, they tend to suffer significantly from the work they willingly do for the rest of us. They sacrifice a part of themselves so that we can be safe and secure. They need the community’s support, assistance, understanding, and goodwill.
Bulletproof Spirit, as well as anything else that promotes emotional-survival training for our first responders, provides an essential service to those who serve and protect all of us.
What can first responders do to nurture their spirit?
The first step is becoming more self-aware of how the job has adversely affected them. If any first responder doubts that they have been negatively affected by their job, they can just ask their life partner — and listen. Bulletproof Spirit has a very detailed self-awareness questionnaire that will shine light on the areas of life that may need more attention; it will give insight into the wellness of the spirit. That is the starting point.
The rest of the book describes in detail dozens of specific methods and emotional-survival practices that will enhance the overall wellness of a first responder’s spirit.
Is there hope for first responders, or are they destined to suffer throughout their careers?
That is the good news: there absolutely is hope. There are effective methods to treat PTSD, to enhance coping abilities, to reduce acute stress, to promote healing, to mitigate and shield against the adverse effects of the job, and to protect and sustain the spirit. Bulletproof Spirit is unique in that it is the only detailed emotional-survival guide, offering nearly forty ways to counteract the trauma and stress of the job. This book offers the hope, training, and resources that will provide a path toward a healthy, vibrant, and meaningful career and quality of life.