Thursday, November 16, 2017

Building Resiliency Against Exposure to Stress and Trauma

By Karyn Murphy
"Resilience is that human quality that allows one to be buffeted by life, disappointed, knocked down and defeated again and again, yet pick themselves up to take on new challenges, try new approaches or refuse to accept failure as a final outcome." -- Battling job stress: How cops can strengthen their resilience.

Fairly new to CDPS and law enforcement, I had the opportunity in September to attend the Colorado State Patrol Vehicular Crimes Unit (VCU) Resiliency Conference. The people and information I found there have profoundly affected me.

CBI Deputy Director Girten presents VCU Members
with a CBI 50th Anniversary Challenge Coin during the
2017 Resiliency Conference.
The Colorado State Patrol originally launched the event 11 years ago as the "ART Retreat," with the vision of providing training and resources for the members of the Vehicular Crimes Unit -- a set of CSP employees who witness extremely traumatic car crashes. After a few years, the event expanded to include the CSP Victims Assistance Unit and members of CBI.

“The conference has recently been opened up to other members of CDPS, which has been an excellent networking opportunity for us all," said Kristen Foust, newly appointed Deputy Director of the Victims Assistance Unit, who managed the conference this year.  "Each year we work closely with Captain Brian Lyons to find dynamic presenters who we feel will provide new and necessary tools for members of VCU to maintain a long, enriching career in such a difficult line of work. Without the support of Captain Lyons and Lt. Col. Matt Packard, the Conference would not be nearly as successful as it's been, as they are truly the backbone to the event.”

A national survey of more than 4,000 first responders found that 6.6 percent had attempted suicide,
which is more than 10 times the rate in the general population. This striking trend underscores the importance of addressing and mitigating the unique stresses that face first responders.

Conversation and presentations at the conference provided me with insight into the experiences of CSP and CBI first responders and the fallout they endure due to repeated exposure to traumatic crime scenes. The goal of the conference is to help them build resilience in the face of such stress. The conference agenda is a combination of intense practical application skills and discussions, along with a few shared meals as a group, and time for relaxation, reflection, and fun. The presenters get down to the nitty gritty on the dangers of stress to the individual, as well as the secondary stress impact on family, friends, and colleagues. The conference explores healthy response and prevention options to counter and prevent PTSD symptoms.

The conference provides an opportunity for attendees to take pause in their uncertain and demanding schedules, which pivot on any given day based on crimes that can occur anywhere, anytime, day or night. CSP Victim Advocates, of which there are only seven in the entire state, maintain a schedule that allows them just two weekends off per month -- and like all responders, this is dependent on what is going on any given day. Dolores Poeppel, director and founder of the Victims Assistance Unit, is quick to praise her dedicated staff, and they return respect and admiration for her as well as each other. “I love my job,” is the theme I unanimously heard throughout the conference as I spoke with them individually.

Spouses and children are encouraged to attend the conference. One of the important symptoms of burn-out or PTSD is withdrawing from those who know you best. Understanding this from the perspective of both the first responder and their family members can open up communication and options to deal with the trauma together.

I filled a notebook with the practical ways to recognize and combat repeated exposure to trauma symptoms. The tips, tools, resources and recommendations are valuable for any human being, even if you're not among the esteemed heroes who are the primary target audience for this event.

For example, here is a glimpse from the presentation of Dr. Jamie Powers, Personal Tips to Build Morale (as in your own):

  • Set Goals
  • Acknowledge achievements
  • Manage your stress by choice
  • Finds things to celebrate
  • Treat yourself
  • Develop your other identities: sister/brother, cousin, father/mother, wife/husband, son/daughter, etc.
  • Look for a positive perspective
  • Appreciate the GOOD
  • Focus on things that you truly enjoy
  • Try to have a neutral bias
  • We are continually scanning for what might hurt us; train yourself to also scan for good.


I encourage my fellow CDPS colleagues to attend the next Resiliency Conference: I can guarantee it will give you a new perspective on the powerful changers of behavior we all have at our disposal if we choose to use them. At the very minimum, you will walk away from this conference with a profound appreciation for how much we truly need one another, and are “safer together.”

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