How can we support the mental health of CSA investigators?
In this conversation with the CEO at the Innocent Justice Foundation and Program Director at SHIFT Wellness, Beth Medina, we discuss the tools and strategies CSA investigators can use in order to handle the job day after day without sacrificing their own mental health.
In the course of carrying out their urgent daily mission of protecting the victims of child sexual abuse (CSA), investigators are putting their own mental health at risk. Exposure to CSA material can have serious negative effects. Psycho-educational programs like SHIFT Wellness play a critical role in helping exposed individuals learn how to recognize and cope with problems before they become severe or permanent.
To learn more about how CSA investigators can preserve their own mental health at work, we had a conversation with the Program Director of SHIFT Wellness, Beth Medina.
The mental health consequences of CSA investigative work
Supporting Heroes in Mental Health Foundational Training (SHIFT) was founded in 2007 by The Innocent Justice Foundation with the aim of helping both the exposed individuals and the supporting mental health professionals work together to mitigate the negative effects of viewing child abuse images. SHIFT came into existence following the discovery of the need for better mental health support among law enforcement officials while working with Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) commanders and task force teams. The foundation had been assisting them with securing the technological equipment needed to catch up with the predators, who were always a few steps ahead when they became aware of a concerning trend.
“I think that almost every officer working in this field would tell you that nothing could have prepared them for what they would be looking at.”
“They expressed to us early on that the sheer volume of data and the type of content they were forced to go through in their work were having large negative effects—not just personally but on the entire organization,” recalls Beth. “They were losing employees to burnout. They simply were not able to do their work anymore, and management wasn’t sure how to tackle that.”
Unfortunately, this was not an isolated case. According to Beth, it is a common occurrence that the people working with CSA and other child abuse material suffer mental health consequences.
“I think that almost every officer working in this field would tell you that nothing could have prepared them for what they would be looking at,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard about how that very first case, or a specific case, is still playing in their heads. That they just can’t shake it off. What we want is that, when that moment happens—because it isn’t a matter of if but when it will happen—that they know that they don’t have to go though it alone. That there is a support system around them.”
After discovering the hardships the ICAC commanders and task force teams were facing, The Innocent Justice Foundation started working with them to develop the program that would later become SHIFT Wellness.
Healing the relationship between law enforcement and mental health professionals
In the process of developing a program that could offer real support to officials working with child abuse material, one of the main hurdles SHIFT Wellness faced was bridging the gap between mental health professionals and law enforcement—a relationship that, historically, hasn’t been very good.
“Previously, mental health professionals only came into the picture for law enforcement if there was a duty question or some sort of critical incident,” explains Beth. “And it wasn’t really about building a relationship with them but, rather, to determine if someone was fit to continue their job or if there was any wrongdoing on their part. So, it wasn’t the best place to start a relationship, given this history. Therefore, part of our initial push was to change the hearts and minds within law enforcement around how mental health and wellness were being supported.”
For this reason, SHIFT Wellness has been deliberate in engaging mental health professionals who not only have a broad understanding of trauma and recovery, but who also have an understanding of law enforcement culture. Training always takes place with one mental health professional who has a background working with this type of material, and one law enforcement professional.
“At first, we had to beg people to let us come in and do training for them… They were very suspect of mental health and wellness training, or at least they didn’t see it as important as other training they might do.”
The program SHIFT Wellness initially developed was a one-day training course based on a psychoeducational model that helps to explain the importance of mental wellness support. They targeted supervisors, management, and front-line staff and explained to them what vicarious trauma is and what it looks like. Then they gave them tools to help prevent some of the mental stress caused by looking at child abuse material on a daily basis.
“Many law enforcement folks or, in fact, people in general, have a level of resiliency that they use when feeling overwhelmed—tools that help us get through challenges in life,” says Beth. “We simply tried to help them identify what’s already there and help them use the most positive aspects when facing challenges, and then create a toolbox that they can pull from when needed. It is very difficult to learn new skills and come up with tools when you’re in the midst of a crisis, so it is important that they already have them at hand when they need them and that they can easily just pick them up.”
As a next step, the SHIFT Wellness team approached leadership to explain the importance of mental health support. According to Beth, in some cases they even broke down the total cost of losing good staff due to mental health problems.
“We illustrated how expensive it was for them to lose their best people,” explains Beth. “More importantly, we talked about the human approach and how it is their responsibly to support the wellbeing of their staff members who are sacrificing themselves to deal with these cases.”
Following this initial experience, SHIFT Wellness continued to develop and, two years later, in 2009, they began offering even more comprehensive training.
Can investigators really experience secondary trauma from CSA material?
“First and foremost, it is, of course, a trauma for the children…they are the victims,” says Beth. “But the person who does the work of going through this material to save these children and prosecute the offenders all become secondary victims to the material. So for us, our job is to assist these officers in recovering from this type of vicarious trauma.”
However, according to Beth, getting front-line officers and investigators to actually talk about the fact that they may have experienced trauma and vicarious trauma is one of the biggest challenges to overcome during SHIFT Wellness training.
“We find the easiest way to talk about it is to break it down into five areas of signs and symptoms of traumatization: the physical, the emotional, the cognitive, the behavioral, and the worldview,” says Beth.
By focusing on these five areas, SHIFT Wellness trainers are able to more easily open up the conversation about the different ways CSA work may affect investigators, and how to notice the signs of traumatization as early as possible.
“For me, the most fulfilling part of this work is when we go into a room filled with police officers and it is clear that many are at first a little suspect,” says Beth. “They’re thinking like, ‘What is this going to be? Are we going to just sit down talking about our feelings?’ But when we start talking with them about the automatic response of the body and how it normally reacts to trauma, they understand that they might have already experienced some symptoms themselves.”
So if you haven’t experienced any of the symptoms, you’re fine? On the contrary, Beth is avid to point out that just because you learn about the trauma response doesn’t mean that you’re never going to face difficulties and challenges.
“I often talk about the body’s trauma respond as a light switch,” she explains. “A light switch is something you turn on and off. And in most situations, that’s exactly how it works with the body’s trauma response too. But when you are faced with trauma for several hours every day and don’t have the right tools and support to handle that, eventually the switch doesn’t get turned off. So, basically, we want to help them recognize the symptoms and give the right tools—before the light switch just stays on.”
“…you cannot expect people to do this work and not give them enough support so that they not only can be successful at it but so that, in the end, it hasn’t taken more from them than what was given.”
A mental health toolbox for CSA investigators
So, what do these tools look like for CSA investigators? Beth shares that there are both preventative tools, and tools that can be utilized in the moment when the symptoms arise. At SHIFT Wellness, they look at it from three different perspectives: the individual, the team, and the support system.
Beth says that, for the investigators who sit by a computer all day looking at CSA material, their bodies often think that they are in “freeze mode.” This means that the body thinks you are stuck and unable to fight or get away from the “threat” that is in front of you. To remedy this, SHIFT Wellness recommends tools that can help them relieve the body.
“It can be simple things like movement, breath exercises, yoga and meditation,” explains Beth. “Another example of a very simple grounding tool is the ’20-20-20 rule.’”
The 20-20-20 rule is based on research on how much load the brain can handle when working in front of a computer before it becomes fatigued. The method entails that, every 20 minutes, you turn away from your computer and focus on something else at least 20 feet away for a minimal of 20 seconds. According to research, this activates a complete cognitive reset.
“All in all, it’s the little things that make the big impact,” says Beth. “So, you don’t need to practice deep meditation or even spend a very long time to feel better. It’s a matter of a few minutes here and there that will make a tremendous difference.”
Team and support system
In contrast with the individual perspective, the team and the support system perspectives aren’t really about hands-on tools or exercises but, rather, about the surrounding conditions which can have a huge impact on mental health.
For investigative teams, Beth says that it’s vital that they take care of one another.
“From my experience, investigative teams often have an extremely strong bond and they simply always have each other’s backs,” she says. “But since they are in this fight together, it is also important to have a support system outside of work. It could be family, friends, or even a hobby. It’s about having things that fulfill you outside of the job.”
How far have we come in terms of mental health support today—do we still have a long way to go?
“I would say that there is definitely a movement in the right direction,” says Beth. “But the need always oversees the solutions, so I think that many people out there feel that things are still moving at a glacial pace. But it is moving. It is moving at a direction of the understanding that you cannot expect people to do this work and not give them enough support so that they not only can be successful at it but so that, in the end, it hasn’t taken more from them than what was given.”
“But I am also aware that this type of material has exploded,” Beth adds. “The massive increase; it’s daunting. So, I think it is a necessity to have mental health support in place at this point. Wellness support is a necessity for every law enforcement team who does this type of work, and it is our responsibility to them to take this matter very seriously and make sure that they have the best protection possible.”
Although Beth reports a positive trend of more and more commanders prioritizing mental wellness for their team, she also points out that there are still a detrimental mindset embedded in law enforcement that’s impeding progress. Namely, she’s referring to the cultural mindset of “pushing through,” regardless of the consequences.
“All the people working with CSA investigations we’ve met have that in common; they see it as their mission to rescue children—no matter the toll it might take on them personally,” says Beth. “The mission is bigger than that. And it should be our mission—the rest of us—to protect them while they’re doing that.”
“Wellness support is a necessity for every law enforcement team who does this type of work, and it is our responsibility to them to take this matter very seriously and make sure that they have the best protection possible.”
Technological advancements offer hope—and new tools for the mental health toolbox
In addition to raising awareness about the support law enforcement officials need, and the preventative strategies that are increasingly being adopted to protect their mental health, there’s yet another tool that is offering some hope. That tool is technology, more specifically, technology that reduces harmful exposure to child abuse material in the first place.
“I’ve seen these people work on these sorts of cases firsthand, and the technology they have at hand is truly supportive,” says Beth. “For example, they don’t have to go through material that has already been looked at—I think that’s brilliant. There’s no need to be traumatized by something that’s already been viewed and handled by someone else. I would say that technology is building up their armor so that, when they are going out to take on the battle, they know that they have the best protection possible while doing it.”
This kind of technology cuts back on the time that law enforcement officials and investigators would otherwise have to spend going through material trying to locate relevant images and videos. Instead, they can focus on the previously unseen CSA material—and identify and rescue children more quickly. This is, of course, the end goal and, according to Beth, it’s also one of the biggest reasons why well-being among these investigators is so important.
“We want investigators to be as efficient as possible at protecting and safeguarding children—and in order for them to be that, they need a protection system in place and the right tools to handle the job.”
About SHIFT Wellness
Supporting Heroes in Mental Health Foundational Training (SHIFT) was developed by The Innocent Justice Foundation (a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization) with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). With a team made up of globally recognized mental health professionals and Internet Crimes Against Children Commanders, SHIFT aims to help exposed individuals and supporting mental health professionals work together to mitigate the negative effects of viewing child abuse images. Learn more at https://www.shiftwellness.org
About this article series
To serve those who protect is a series of articles that explores topics related to the investigators and law enforcement officials who protect our children from abuse, and the tools and technology that supports them as they carry out their daily mission. Read the first and second article here.