I served as a police officer and sergeant with the Oshkosh Police Department in Wisconsin for 13 years. In 2019, shortly after a promotion, I began experiencing extreme anxiety, depression, and what would later be diagnosed as a debilitating form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I would obsessively worry about my performance as a supervisor, ruminating about my past and present decisions, disposition of investigated cases, and every minor form of perceived unsatisfactory performance I had ever displayed. I started compulsively confessing my perceived faults or mistakes, thinking they were catastrophic events. I was constantly reassured by coworkers, other supervisors, and even my chief that my perceived faults were no big deal (seeking reassurance was a compulsion). My department found me a therapist through the Employee Assistant Program (EAP). I started seeing a psychiatrist and taking medications. OCD is often and incorrectly believed to be a disorder where a quirky person needs things perfect and organized. In reality, it is when a person experiences intrusive thoughts or obsessions opposite of their character (e.g., thoughts or urges harming someone physically or even sexually), as well as compulsions such as seeking reassurance that they would never do those things. It is a debilitating and chronic disorder that affects millions of people. Within the many forms of OCD are two major symptoms that make it exceedingly difficult to treat. Those symptoms are guilt and doubt. To the sufferer, their thoughts feel real, so they often doubt their character, actions, and memories. They also feel extreme guilt for having those thoughts. The guilt can be so strong the sufferer believes they must have done something wrong; otherwise, they would not be feeling this way or having these thoughts. For more information on OCD, please visit https://iocdf.org/.
In the process of my treatment, I discovered that my therapist, provided through the city’s EAP, was not trained to treat OCD. His methods were the opposite of the gold-standard therapy for OCD, Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). Under ERP, a patient and therapist expose the patient to their fears, and the patient resists the compulsion that reinforces the unwanted thought or belief. It is an extremely difficult form of therapy. Instead, my therapist just reassured me I was a good person and would not do what my brain was telling me I would do. Worst of all, he told me to stop thinking these intrusive thoughts. We know how well “not thinking about something” works. OCD attacks the things a person holds most dear. For me, it started out attacking my career, position, and everything surrounding my job as an officer. I spent days ruminating and doing internet searches to find out if I was a “dirty cop” and would lose my job. I laid in bed for days, fearing my career was over. What everyone else perceived as minor, I saw as the end of the world.
I was constantly being exposed to triggers as I approved reports involving sexual assaults of children, dealt with sex offenders, and worked cases involving child pornography. These triggers reinforced my thoughts and compulsions, which, along with improper treatment, was why I was not getting better. I had lost all hope. One afternoon in April 2020, I mentally collapsed. My wife called a friend who had been at my side since the beginning of my struggles, and he came over. I was a mess, bawling uncontrollably and unable to function in any capacity, let alone as an officer. He made the right call to keep me home that day, and I was placed on medical leave.
I reached out to Rogers Behavioral Health, one of the most reputable medical organizations for treating OCD and other anxiety disorders. I was almost immediately admitted to their residential/in-patient treatment facility in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. I spent six weeks there, engaged in therapy, ERP, doctors, medications — you name it — seven days a week and eight hours a day. I spent another six weeks in partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient therapy at their Appleton location. By September 2020, I had improved, though still unable to function well enough to return to the police department. Because of the severity of my case and symptoms, and the fact OCD is treatable but not curable, I was approved for disability retirement. After being placed on leave on April 28, 2020, I never returned to duty. I officially retired on August 27.
I will tell you that the world of mental health within law enforcement has a long way to go in acknowledging mental-health injuries in the same way as physical ones. What is the difference between an officer who is physically wounded — in a squad crash, shooting, or stabbing while arresting a resistive or combative subject— and one whose brain says, “I have had enough”? In some departments, there is no difference at all, and officers are not ostracized for having mental injuries sustained on the job. But many are not ready to accept mental injuries in the same light. It is a fact, as I can attest personally and in speaking with many organizations such as the Relentless Defender Foundation, The Wounded Blue, and the Thin Blue Line Foundation, that officers who retire due to mental-health disability are often forgotten. On my final day, an email was sent department-wide reading something to the effect of “Sergeant Seaholm is no longer employed with the Oshkosh Police Department. We wish him well.” My 13 years of service were summed up in a short email. The only communication my family or I received after being placed on medical leave (until I retired) was the initial letter placing me on medical leave. Early in my medical leave, I realized I was truly on my own. I began the application process for disability retirement within the Wisconsin Retirement System during my residential stay at Rogers, when I was at my worst physically and mentally. The disability application process involved an initial phone call, a lengthy application packet, medical and HR records and paperwork, and two separate doctor evaluations. Any disability application process is extremely difficult, lengthy, and stressful. Even with a disability attorney at your side, many disability cases are declined and need to be appealed, further adding to the stress and length of the process. I am still amazed I was able to navigate disability retirement on my own during a time when I most needed the department’s help.
Last fall, I was the recipient of the National Association of Chiefs of Police’s Purple Heart. This award is issued to an officer medically disabled by an injury. The process involves an application process and a review of medical paperwork. Receiving this honor felt like a step in the right direction for officers who retire or are disabled from mental-health illnesses caused by the job. I was inspired to share my story and help other officers who are going through something similar to what I had experienced. My goal was to use my relationships in law enforcement and social media to talk about the importance of officer mental health and how debilitating it can be. As I pitched my idea to leadership, I remember being told, “The public isn’t ready to acknowledge officers receiving awards for mental-health injuries.” The public is not ready? If not now, when? Why don’t we start right now and begin moving in the right direction? The ignorance and mistakes of a few should not reflect upon the entire organization or profession. However, because I know I am not the only officer who left because of mental illness and who has experienced unfair treatment, it confirms that more needs to be done to remove the stigma around mental illness within law enforcement. What is even more pressing is that any person, civilian or not, can at any moment start experiencing symptoms of mental-health illness that, if left untreated or incorrectly treated, can have disastrous consequences. The stigma that sufferers “need to tough it out” or “can’t be emotional” needs to end. So does the idea that one can just fight through it and suck it up. Many departments across the United States have officer wellness programs, therapists on staff, training programs, and other initiatives that support mental wellness for officers. This is a start. What I would like to see is more public education on the alarming statistics of officer mental-health issues, including suicide, on a large-scale format. Bringing more media attention to the various organizations, conferences, and literature that talk about mental injury and trauma within the law-enforcement community. If you or someone you know is suffering from any form of mental-health issues, I implore you to reach out to your doctor and research specialty doctors and therapists and what they treat. Finding the right mix of therapy and medication is crucial to your success. There are many healthcare professionals out there; some are better trained and more experienced than others. It took me several months to find the right combination of doctors, therapists, and medications before I started seeing results.
I genuinely enjoyed my career as a police officer. I did everything I ever dreamed of doing in terms of promotions, special units, and general police work. Most rewarding were the bonds and friendships I made. Having coffee in the break room on chilly winter nights and watching early-morning television are memories I will cherish forever. Lastly, know that mental illness can impact anyone, first responders and civilians alike. It does not discriminate, and no one is immune from it. It can creep up slowly and, when you are most vulnerable, knock you down like a punch from Mike Tyson. This is important to remember because knowing this, along with the early-warning signs and symptoms of mental illness, can be lifesaving. Most importantly, never give up.