Dr Jess Miller is Research Fellow at the Police Dependants’ Trust and the University of Cambridge and lead for the Trauma Resilience in UK Policing project www.policingtrauma.sociology.cam.ac.uk. In July 2017, Dr Jess introduced the project and the concept of the ‘Policing Brain’ here on Oscar Kilo and on 13th March this year, Jess presented at UpBeat! to share some key findings from the first 9 months of the two-year project. Here we take the opportunity to hear from Jess personally about UpBeat! and about how trauma processing and resilience in operational policing may be closer than we think.
The UpBeat! conference was all about exchanging understanding and progress from new initiatives to improve everyday wellbeing support of UK police officers and staff. Given that the UpBeat! conference was held one year on from the last PDT conference, it was a poignant chance to fully reflect on what we’ve all been doing to address trauma impact and welfare need, need which was highlighted so acutely that afternoon of March 22nd 2017 in Westminster.
For me, UpBeat! was a big moment. But it turned out to be a bigger moment for the project for reasons I hadn’t envisaged. First off, the last time I presented to that audience in 2017, I had yet to be hired by the PDT and Cambridge. So, this time around, it was really important to me to show those who continue to invest in the project that their investment is: a) worth it, and b) possibly something from which we will never look back.
Secondly, it was a big moment because the reception I felt and the subsequent momentum of the UpBeat! day was similar to that of the project as a whole. The appetite for the work we do around trauma impact, trauma processing and trauma resilience has, from day one in May 2017, been overwhelming. I didn’t see it coming. What UpBeat! and the last nine months has shown me is that everything we need to address trauma resilience in UK policing is all around us and in many ways is already happening. Right in front of us.
Colleagues in academia, the military, policing and the NHS have long agreed that the new understanding we have in neuropsychology about how the mind makes sense of trauma, of the extraordinary, is critically relevant to operational policing. It needs to be translated. It needs to be acted on. And fast. Our mission for this project, as you probably know, is to help get the ball rolling to make this happen. But, if I am honest, I was worried that maybe I wouldn’t be able to articulate what we need to do in such a way that would resonate with those who need it most; actual Police doing the actual job.
As an aside, what people may or may not realise is that to have the letters ‘d’ and ‘r’ in front of your name can turn off more people as it does on, and that can be heart-breaking and frustrating in my role. At the end of the day, however much work I have done alongside Police in my 20 years’ career, I am acutely aware that I am not – and probably will never be- a serving officer. I will never be able to reach the podium on stage and immediately gain the audience’s empathy by opening with “I’m just a cop”. When I stand up there, to an audience, I am Dr Jess. Unless I bring out all the other versions of Jess Miller (and, believe me, some of them would not be appropriate to introduce you to in that setting!) it can be a challenge to even be up there, before I even start the brain stuff!
When it comes to sharing new ideas and encouraging people in policing to make brave decisions about how to manage their (and others’) personal inner, mental life, surely experience on the front line is valuable, critical even? Yes, it is. Do I have it? No.
Do we (the project, the collective, field) have it? Yes, we do. Everywhere. Every conversation, every phone call, every focus group, every Tweet, every survey response, every job shadow reveals an abundance of articulate, highly experienced frontline and senior officers and staff. These people, these 100% human, 100% genuine, people –who happen to be in the Police– are already talking about how they manage trauma impact in everyday life, in their minds, in their behaviour, in their workplaces and in their interactions with others. They are already showing that they want to be able to do more of what they do well, and less of what causes them to struggle inside. What more could I want?
We just have to collate our ideas, solidify them (perhaps with a bit of science or evidence, if that’s what floats our boat), select what works and ditch what doesn’t. It’s life experience that we have all around us that will enable us to do this. It’s the honesty to say “this is who I am, this is how I deal with that I do, and here is how it goes”. It’s also about trust, about cooperation and working together to help bring about the sustainable resources and practical mechanisms we need to ensure that everyone has a fair chance at resilience, whatever their role, whatever their force.
March 13th gave me a sense of all this, loud and clear. I had my lecture in front of me: the workings of the alarming almond (amygdala), the sensible seahorse (hippocampus) putting things in context, and the mental flashlight (pre-frontal cortex, pFC) bringing us awareness and reminding us of other people. There I was, dealing with my own almond firing off an incessant and vibrant stress response, standing up in front of 200 people plus cameras and goodness knows who else on Live feeds. [I’ve always fantasised about using that moment to demonstrate how we can (eventually) normalise after an extreme stress response. But I never do. Because I’m too stressed!]. I think my sensible seahorse had gone off for a swim somewhere (she’s not that reliable for me, I’m afraid- as you may have seen by my own MRI scan I shared!) as I couldn’t grasp perspective: all I had was my sensory response.
But I didn’t need to worry, I had enough in front of me and with me to see me through. I switched on my (Pfc) awareness and engaged in the present with the words on the screen I was reading, words from those in high risk roles, talking about their techniques. I listened to those Emergency Call Handlers who told me to let my body tell me that it’s stressed, to the online Child Sexual Exploitation staff who told me to choose what to focus on in my visual field, to the Counter Terrorism officers who taught me to be aware of the bigger picture of all those around me working together for a common cause – and in listening to my participants, I too harnessed my resilience in front of everyone. I carried on engaging the pFC, feeding it a little humour (laughing at my own capacity to get lost) and allowed it a small sense of reward for having made it on to the stage in the first place.
And finally, I gave my brain one last treat…I took in the audience. I looked out into a sea of faces to see so many pairs of smiling eyes which were familiar to me: familiar through research I conducted six years ago, familiar from Twitter feeds sharing news and encouraging words, familiar from some of our live projects already up and running in forces, familiar as leading lights in their fields on the Speaker’s table, and some faces just familiar to me because they seemed to understand what I was trying to say from where they were sitting.
So there it was at UpBeat! Using my brain to manage stress and find resilience. Resilience can be found in every moment, it is in what we choose to notice in our environment, it is in those we choose to connect with. For the world of policing, which is already a world shaped by a common goal to help people, maintain order, and keep people safe, mental resilience is closer than we think. If we can be helpful, if we can be aware and if we can care in our work, for our job, for policing – then we can certainly learn to do this for our own minds. There may be much to do ahead of us in terms of translating evidence into intervention, of matching need with resource, of dealing with unexpected knocks and long term groans…but if I ever met a collection of remarkable people more galvanised, more capable, more spirited and more on course to make the difference that UK policing deserves, it was at UpBeat! All I can say is Thank You for letting me be a part of it.