Police officers who may need help facing a particular issue are, for the most part, fortunate to have a wealth of resources and support available to them. However, many departments tend to underappreciate a key element of an officer’s wellbeing: their spouse. We recently spoke with Linda Seitz, co-founder of the Huntington Beach Police Department Support for Officer Spouses (SOS) group, about the need for and benefits of establishing a departmental spousal support group.
How did the HBPD SOS group get started?
My husband was the captain of the Huntington Beach, California Police Department when the Dallas shootings occurred. Soon after the shootings happened, he noticed that a lot of the younger officers were coming in saying that their wives didn’t want them to go into work. It created a scare in the community, especially for those who had family working in law enforcement.
So, my husband called the psychologist on retainer for the department and told her about the situation. She came in to do a full-family meeting with the department for officers and their spouses, parents, kids—anyone who wanted to come. She was hoping to try to alleviate some of the fears that were permeating the community.
Over fifty people showed up. My husband was past the point of being out on the street, but I wanted to be involved with what was happening. The psychologist started to ask questions to the group at large about what was happening in their homes, what their fears were, if they had any questions for her—and no one was responding.
It lasted for about 15 minutes. She was trying to tell everyone that police work isn’t statistically as dangerous as the news makes it seem, that other jobs are more dangerous…and all she got back was a bunch of deer in the headlights.
Suddenly, she said, “I have an idea. Could I ask every officer in this room to stand up and leave?”
The officers left. The psychologist asked a few more questions, and people started to talk.
For one reason or another, the people who came to the meeting didn’t want to say certain things in front of their officer spouses.
From there, the meeting went incredibly. At the end, Kirsten (Knorr, co-founder of SOS) and I looked at each other and said that we needed to do something to help this continue. It was obviously something that these people needed in their lives. From there, we set up some meetings and began to get everything started.
Why do you think the area of spousal support is so overlooked within the average department?
To me, it seems like there’s a bit of a generational gap right now. A lot of older officers carry some leftover feelings which used to be very common. Many don’t really trust therapy all that much and tend to avoid treatment that is stereotypically expressive or touchy-feely.
And, to be frank, some officers don’t like the idea of spouses meeting one another. It’s no secret that there’s an expectation of privacy within individual departments—not in the sense of covering up very bad things, but there is a code to keep certain elements in-house.
So, to some, there’s a stigma around law enforcement spousal support groups. They’re seen as gossip groups.
But it does seem like things are changing. The vast majority of spouses in our meetings are younger; there aren’t many who are older. I think that goes along with the common feeling that millennials (for as much flak as they may get) understand the benefit of talking about things. They really get the idea of community, of mindfulness—those kinds of things are really worth taking care of.
What did you do to alleviate the fears that some officers may have had about the support group?
Right off the bat, we established some guidelines about the groups. We said, “Okay, here are the rules.” We wanted the group to focus on the common, typical problems that occur in the average police marriage, in the home, with police scheduling, etc.
If someone wants to talk about something in particular which may be more private, they pick one fellow spouse and plan a time to go get coffee or something to talk about it. This ensures that the group doesn’t turn into a gossip circle, but at the same time it provides spouses the opportunity to talk to someone about their personal issues if they need it.
We also created a mission statement that outlined those types of things. It helped to keep everything responsible and professional.
Why do you think each department would benefit from a spousal support group?
It’s not a shock to learn that police spouses deal with a massive amount of home and marital stress. It’s much higher than the average person in this country. Obviously, the potential for all sorts of trauma is much higher for them as well. When an individual becomes a police officer, their entire immediate family also enters the career in a way.
Everyday stressors are often minor, but they compound as months and years go by until they really take a toll. For one, the nature of shift work is incredibly tough if you’re the spouse of a police officer. Sleeping alone or having to accept the sudden call is just a fact of life. You know to sit a certain way at a restaurant so your officer can see the door. Disney World is no longer the happiest place on Earth—it’s dangerous! Your officer is watching everyone’s hands, everyone’s movements. Sometimes, their gun is just sitting on the counter when your friend comes over for lunch. The humor is different. The things you need to tell your kids are different. Family outings or birthday parties are different. You need to brace yourself each day for stories or scares or anything that could happen.
All of these things build upon one another, and it all becomes a lot to deal with. Officers have a brotherhood to fall back on if they need support, but their spouses don’t have something like that. They need to have some sort of outlet with people who understand where they are coming from.
Spouses also commonly experience a condition known as Compassion Fatigue. Just hearing about their officer spouse’s experiences day after day can eventually have a tangible adverse effect. Spouses obviously care deeply about their officers and maintaining a constant worry eventually wears on a person quite heavily—especially if they are no longer thinking about their own wellbeing. This preoccupation often leads to anxiety or even guilt.
Spousal support groups also directly help officers. In our group, for example, we’ve gone over the signs and symptoms of PTSD that spouses should be looking out for in their officer partners.
Information like this can obviously help police spouses guide their partners to help if they notice anything substantial, but it also often has a positive effect on relationships. Instead of a misunderstanding or other minor issue leading to an argument, spouses can now say to themselves, “Huh. I wonder if this has something to do with that call he (or she) went on last week.” Instead of them contributing to escalation, spouses of officers can begin to see issues through a softer, more educated and watchful eye, which can help avoid conflict altogether. From there, the spouse can take more proactive measures such as suggesting that their officer see the department psychologist about last week’s call.
So, helping to save officers’ lives through education on PTSD and other mental health issues is wonderful, but these groups also provide more subtle information—like how to communicate with your officer spouse and manage your police relationship.
How can the average police department go about establishing a spousal support group?
Well, first, a couple of motivated spouses really need to take the reigns to schedule the first meeting and formulate strategies for the group as a whole. These are the people who initially need to research topics to plan discussions and gather resources. Then, they need to get the chief and hopefully a few other more higher-ranking officers on board. This administrative buy-in is incredibly important for the group’s professionalism and longevity going forward. Hopefully, these are the same individuals who can send out department-wide emails or other announcements that can spread the word about the group.
My husband’s department ended up creating a Wellness Board on each floor of the building. Each time an officer walked out of the elevator, there would be a Wellness Board posted which included a flyer announcing our next meeting time. From our experience, the higher-ups in departments are always willing to help get the group started and announce meeting times.
One thing I’d really like to stress, however, is that these meeting times or flyers or brochures really need to get into the hands of spouses; they can’t just sit at the department. If a spouse who may benefit from help doesn’t know the help is out there, then there’s obviously a problem.
We provide a PDF on our website called 10 Steps to Develop and Maintain a Spousal Support Group which offers some ways people can establish successful support groups within their own departments. My number one wish would be that every single department has a family-wide meeting at least once a year, but a regular, fully functioning spousal support group really has a tremendous impact on the wellbeing of both officers and their spouses. This, of course, can only improve each department as a whole.
Linda is currently writing a book on police marriages called Officer Involved Spouse. She also travels to police departments to speak about spousal support and law enforcement marriage. Visit her website, peaksandvalleys.life to learn more.