Many close protection operatives consider themselves to have forged strong peer relationships through teams working in hostile environments. They trust their colleagues and, in turn, believe that they are trusted.
… ultimately I need to know that whoever I’m working with, if the shit hits the fan and I’m in a situation, that my colleagues are going to be there to watch my back – just as I will for them. With my close team I know instinctively, they will be there. I also know that the people who know me really well, accept me for who I am and I’ll do anything to help those that are close to me, you know, anything – I’ll go out of my way to help them (Ben)
If you can relate to Ben’s words, then there are some important facts that you need to know. Firstly the good news about peer support:
• Strong, trusting relationships amongst peers protects against mental illness
• Peer support is an important factor in recovering from the psychological impact of traumatic events
Unfortunately, the facts don’t stop there:
• The majority of people will find it hard to ask for support from their peers. They will often fear being judged as weak or not up to the job. Rather than accessing peer support they may withdraw from it and become isolated. The culture of a team can really add to this. The jokes and banter we all use to defuse tension, along with stereotypes about mental illness, can combine to make people fearful of admitting a problem
• Many people will try to suppress or ignore their mental distress causing an escalation of symptoms may end in a crisis. At that point, there may even be suicidal or homicidal thoughts – particularly concerning if deadly weapons are readily available. When this crisis happens, peers may be completely taken by surprise but often, with hindsight, the signs were there. Friends are left asking themselves “why didn’t they tell me? I would have helped somehow before it got so bad.”
The ethos of “Leave no man behind” is a mainstay across the international Armed Forces and equally relevant to professionals in close protection. If a colleague was injured out in the field, would you turn your back and walk away? Maybe blame him or her for not being up to the job? Or label them as damaged goods not worthy of bothering with? Hopefully not but what if the injury was psychological, invisible and not easily understood?
In industries that rely on physical and psychological strength, a traumatic stress reaction can be viewed as “not normal” and shameful even though it’s a perfectly natural reaction to an out-of-the-ordinary event. The truth is, we can build up our resilience but nobody is immune to developing a PTS reaction. Nobody is invulnerable. As we’ve said in previous editions, it is based on our biologically inbuilt, survival response and made up of physical and psychological reactions to threat.
Six principles of peer support
You don’t need to be a qualified mental health professional to support your peers. You talk the same language, share the same experiences and really understand what they have gone through. However, there are things you need to consider if you want to ensure you’re doing the best for your close colleagues.
1) Be aware of changes – This may be sudden and marked or a slow subtle change. Be particularly vigilant for increased anger, distancing from friends, avoiding activities or signs of fatigue. Frequent colds, weight changes and new or worsened minor conditions (e.g. eczema, irritable bowel syndrome) may indicate a body that is compromised by stress hormones.
2) Raise your concerns with them
Be honest. If you think someone is acting out of character, the simplest (but ironically sometimes the hardest) thing to do is to raise this with them. Avoid language that implies weakness such as
“What’s wrong with you?” “Are you struggling to cope?”
Consider how you would want someone to approach you if the roles were reversed. Keep it informal and low-key. If you are avoiding having the conversation, think how much harder it could be if you wait for a crisis to hit.
3) Take a long-term view
Because you are trained to set your emotions aside, reactions can take several weeks or months to bubble to the surface. There may be initial reluctance to accept there is a problem. Many people have a front to maintain and there is a huge stigma to admitting to problems. Just because you’re told they’re “fine” doesn’t mean you should dismiss your concerns. Keep an eye out. It may take them time and several attempts before they’re ready to talk.
4) Watch out for unhelpful ways of coping
– it’s important to avoid behaviour that may end up making things worse. Be aware of the fine line between helpful and unhelpful strategies.
• Alcohol: taking them for a drink and using small amounts of alcohol as a means to loosen their tongue and allow people to talk freely can be good. Going for several drinks and using alcohol to blot out symptoms can be extremely unhelpful. In larger amounts, alcohol is a depressant, removes inhibitions and may result in risky behaviour
• Withdrawal: having quiet time to reflect on matters can be good. Avoiding social contact and withdrawing from work or pleasurable activities can add to the negative impact.
• Using work as a temporary distraction from problems can be helpful and provide a sense of control and self-esteem. Using work to avoid dealing with the experience can lead to burnout and prevent processing of the event.
5) Encourage helpful ways of coping – even if they don’t want to open up to you or admit a problem, you can still help by encouraging them to do the things that generally help with traumatic stress. This can be as simple as taking part in regular exercise so motivating them to go for a run or gym session with you (rather than the bar). Being around people who understand and talking about experiences is helpful. Talking helps the brain to process the experience whereas bottling it up can be very unhelpful.
If someone does want to talk, avoid responding with statements such as
“You’ll get over this – just pull yourself together” “Best not to talk about it, it will only upset you”
Your job is simply to listen and allow them to make their own sense of things rather than to try and fix it for them. If you’ve had a similar reaction in the past, it can be helpful for them to know they’re not alone and that recovery is possible. With good support and helpful coping, the vast majority of people will make a full recovery and many are actually strengthened by the experience.
6) Get advice
If you’re not sure how to approach someone or have any concerns whatsoever, speak to a health professional. If you are a team leader, it’s even more important to be aware of these issues as part of your welfare responsibilities. You may want to think about continuing professional development by training in trauma awareness. Check out our website and blog for more resources www.powertorecover.co.uk
And together let’s leave no man behind.
By: Liz Royle & Cath Kerr
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