First Responders & Mental Struggles: Who Helps The Helpers?

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast
Dr. Amen is joined by Dr. Nancy Bohl-Penrod to discuss her work as the Director of The Counseling Team International. They talk about Dr. Bohl-Penrod’s husband’s struggles as a police officer and how that led her to the work she does, as well as the stigma around seeking help as a first responder.
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Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome to the Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.
Tana Amen: I'm Tana Amen. In our podcast, we provide you with the tools you need to become a warrior for the health of your brain and body.
Dr. Daniel Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics, where we have been transforming lives for 30 years using tools like brain SPECT imaging to personalize treatment to your brain. For more information, visit
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Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome back. We are so excited this week to have Dr. Nancy Bohl-Penrod with us, and Dr. Bohl-Penrod is a psychotherapist and trainer to first responders. So this is going to be one of the first weeks we actually dedicated the whole week to heroes.
Here at Amen Clinics, we did the world's first and largest study on active and retired NFL players, and I realized they're not really heroes, they're entertainers, that the real heroes in our society are firefighters and police officers and paramedics and the people who respond when you need them.
So I'm very excited to have Dr. Bohl-Penrod with us. So she's got a PhD in clinical psychology. She's the founder and director of the Counseling Team International, also known as the Southern California Critical Incident Stress Management Team, which has taught over 12,000 first responders throughout the US and Canada.
She's the past president of the International Association of Police Chiefs Psychological Service Section, vice president of the National Sheriffs Association Psychological Service Section. I could go on and on.
But welcome, Nancy. Tell us about how you got interested in helping first responders.
Dr. Nancy Bohl: Okay, and thank you very much, Doctor, for having me on. I first got interested because I married a police officer, and I watched how some of the incidents that he experienced impacted him and how he found himself withdrawing, drinking too much alcohol, not really being engaged in a social life.
When that occurred, he had a critical incident, which was a car accident that ended up forcing him to retire early, at a young age. When he retired, I watched how his police department did absolutely nothing for him. They didn't do anything for me, our family. They actually said, "Hey, it was great having you around as long as you were" and sent him on his way. He was not prepared for that. None of us were prepared for that.
So I was like, "What do you mean, they're just saying goodbye?" I mean, in our minds, we thought that he would be a police officer for 30, 35 years, put in his retirement, and life would go on. When that didn't happen and it became very difficult [inaudible 00:03:57], I went to his police department and said, "I'm getting my degree in education counseling. I would like to help out your officers when they're involved in a critical incident."
The chief at the time - I actually call him my bullet in the back chief - he said, "You know what? I have a bullet in my back from a shooting years ago. I didn't need to talk to anybody." He goes, "My family didn't need any help."
So I said, "Well, it's a little different now."
He goes, "No, cops don't need help." So he sent me out the door.
So I was a little frustrated, but my personality is I'm not going to let that push me down. I'm going to still try to help law enforcement. So I went to the local sheriff's department, and it took me quite a while to get an appointment, but I did get an appointment with a lieutenant at the sheriff's department - he's retired now; his name's Jim Nunn - and said ... finally got an appointment with him and said, "Look, you need to do something for your deputies when something bad happens to them."
He listened and said, "Let me take this to the sheriff." He took me to the sheriff at the time, who was Al [inaudible 00:05:16], somebody who didn't really believe in counseling or any kind of therapy. He sat there for a while, and he said, "You know what? My son was in a shooting. He got divorced. He turned to drugs. He turned to alcohol. He became angry."
He said, "I had to fire him, and I was the sheriff. I'll tell you what," he said. "I think you have something there. I did nothing for him."
That's how I started. I did an internship. I went back to the FBI Academy at Quantico several times to learn about law enforcement and what the FBI was doing. As soon as I got licensed, I opened up a private practice and started going [inaudible 00:06:06] police departments, saying, "I want to help. I want to help," because I didn't want anybody's family to go through what I went through, and I didn't want cops and firefighters and police officers and deputy sheriffs to be out there without any support. That's how it happened.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Wow. That's really a great story. What are some of the biggest lessons you've learned? Over the next three podcasts, we'll unwrap those, but I want a preview of some for the people listening.
Psychological and emotional trauma is so rampant in our society, but it's almost part of the job. When I think of the firefighters that I have seen, I've actually not met any firefighters that have not experienced some pretty horrific events.
So when you just think over the time you've been helping first responders, what are the top three or four big lessons you've learned?
Dr. Nancy Bohl: I've learned that they mask, and they don't share readily, that you have to build a rapport with them, and that, because of what they're trained ... what they're given at the academy, they're actually trained to stuff it, to push it down - "Don't let it bother you. Get over it as quickly as you can, because you're going to go on another call."
Because of that, it's not an easy position to just walk in and think that you're going to build an instant rapport with them and have them share their life story with you. So, as a clinician, you have to take your time.
But, as for departments, just based on the story I just told you about what happened to me, personally, in my family is that there's a trickle-down theory, definitely, meaning if a police chief, a fire chief, a fire battalion chief, a captain on a department, they don't believe in the helping process, they let everybody know that, so everyone's afraid to ask for the help. They don't reach out, because their commanders are telling them that it's not a good thing.
I think the third thing is that they are such kind people that so many of the incidents that they work on a daily basis impact them - not just them emotionally, but it impacts their family life. It impacts the way they view the world, some of it negative, but also some of it's positive. They also know how to enjoy life.
The fourth thing is that they are very family-oriented, and they so often push the family aside. Even though they love their families, they push them aside because of the job. The job demands their time, their energy, and it zaps them of some of their joy. So they push their families aside, and they don't know they're really doing it.
Dr. Daniel Amen: So let's take a step back and just talk about many of them are kind. So they're in a service profession. They chose to be in a service profession, but I think that that might not be a word people would associate with police officers or firefighters. So say more about that.
Dr. Nancy Bohl: Well, when I talk to them, I tell them that they picked the job. The job didn't pick them. The fact that they picked the job, what that means is their personalities are a lot alike. They're rescuers. Many of them come from a background where they rescued, whether they were rescuing an alcoholic father from hurting their mothers or they were rescuing the kid that was bullied at school or the female that didn't have good parents.
They're rescuers, from early on. They're rescuers, and so out of that personality that chooses the job is their kindness. They truly have a calling, and many of them, if you ask them when they're getting hired, "Why do you want to do this?" ... I don't think that it's just something that they just say. I believe they really feel it. They say they want to make a difference. They want to stop crime. They actually want to be able to physically and emotionally help people.
You'll hear firefighters say ... I met a firefighter when I was five years old that rescued my cat, and I wanted to do that, because I know how much joy it brought me. I mean, they really are kind people. I see the very best in them, and I get an opportunity to experience the best of them.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Wonderful. When we come back, we're going to talk about first responders and some of their common mental health struggles. Stay with us.
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