Wellness for Forensic Practitioners: An Operational Issue?

As a long time scientist/practitioner in a “last responder” position, I’ve found an amazing amount of satisfaction and fulfillment in my job up to this point.  My crazy colleagues, the smart detectives I’ve worked with, the brilliant folks at Parabon Nanolabs that collaborate with my agency…I feel lucky to have done some of the far-fetched things I’ve experienced and lived to tell the tale.  I am grateful that my co-workers are some of my best friends to boot.  But, it’s not like my job has ever been particularly life-threatening, as if I could have actually died doing it…not like my husband’s old job as a cop, or an ODOT worker on the highway construction project, or the brave men and women deployed in our military.   But our forensic careers always garner great interest, have you noticed that?  People we don’t know want to hear a gruesome story about a crime scene, or talk about the homicide from last weekend, or ask if we saw a body at an autopsy.  A lot of the time, the same set of questions is accompanied by a follow-up statement:

I have no idea how you do it.  Are you just desensitized to it all?

The answer for me, unequivocally, is no.  As I move through my career, I think I’m getting more sensitive to the scenes, the smells, and the silence of sitting with a deceased person for hours.  I feel the mental toll it takes on my mind and spirit, and I think about how I could be better equipped to ride out this storm or feel more buoyant in it, at least.  There is a definite risk to me as a last responder, but it is largely invisible.

It’s interesting how, over the years, our management partners view our roles as crime scene analysts/death investigators in relation to the concept of well-being and the mental toll this job may take on employees.  I think very few of us, including management, have had the skill sets or the language to speak about our uneasiness, our stress levels, our secondary trauma, or our abilities to cope with adversity on the job.   This isn’t a commentary on management styles, it’s simply observing that our well-being was never considered integral as a facet of a successful career.  No one ever spoke of the importance of resiliency, or self-compassion, or even debriefing for psychological closure after particularly nasty events like mass shootings, the homicides of children, goofing up on testimony, failing a QA…you get the picture (you may have even been there before).   Our career paths are unique; thus, how we respond to adversity are just as unique.  Of course we all deal with things differently, with different filters firmly in place and different world views firmly baked into who we are.  Where does well-being or “wellness” fit in our professional world?  How can a human who is also a crime scene analyst detach to the point of never having feelings about their job and the things they see?

Unfortunately, the historical perspective (and the perspective of the forensic-based dramatic TV shows) paint us as clinical, unemotional, disinterested, dispassionate, anti-social, and detached.  This may have taken root from the way we were trained.  When discussing post-scene trauma with leadership over the years, I’ve heard everything from:

You’re a scientist.  Crime scenes shouldn’t affect you.

You chose this career.  That must mean you like death and dead things.

There shouldn’t be any emotions attached to this job…just like testifying in court.  Be a disinterested third party.  It’s always worked for me.

Go home, drink some water, don’t make any big decisions for the next week or so.

Do you want another slice of pizza?

I’ve come to believe over the past 2 decades that those of us in this career cannot detach our humanity from our jobs.  It’s who we are.  Humanity is actually why we pursued forensics. Forensic scientists want justice; want to solve puzzles; want to tackle hard problems; want resolution for survivors/victims; want to infuse technical work with energy and compassion.  And, they have been begging for fearless leadership to recognize these points and approve the exploration of mental fortitude and grit in our fundamental training modules.  This is NOT a plea to infuse our workplace with an excess of emotion.  This is not an invitation to talk about how broken we all are, together.  I don’t see us as broken at all; I see us as warriors who want guidance on how to hone our awareness, concentration, and compassion skills.  This is a plea to infuse our workplace with just the right amount of humanity.  Again, it’s who we are.  Humanity is not weakness, it’s the strength of being human, and all that comes with it.

As a field, we are seeing national leadership sit up and pay more attention to the concepts of humanity, compassion, and resiliency in forensic science.  Practical skill set trainings on emotion regulation, self-compassion in the face of adversity, and proactive response to trauma are out there.  They can be found with experts at MindGen LLC and Mindful Badge.  They can be found in our military communities through programs like Warriors At Ease.  Training on fearless compassion is available to all of us.  Moving forward, will our leadership look at this type of proactive, innovative training as a supplement to our careers (where we take less sick days and make less mistakes) or as in impediment to the dispassionate scientist who must compartmentalize their emotions?  More and more often, I’m seeing leadership reach out and explore the evolution of our mindset training.

With that said, I was thrilled to see the Forensic Technology Center of Excellence extend a new webinar entitled ASCLD Emerging Issues: COVID 19 – Wellness and Operations.  The webinar airs live on Monday March 29, 2021 at 1:oo p.m. Eastern time.  You can register for the class here if you’re interested.  One of the two presenters on the webinar is also a fellow Smiling Scientist and groundbreaker in the arena of mindfulness for forensic scientists: Amy Jeanguenat, CEO and Principal Consultant at Mindgen LLC.

If you’ve never heard of Amy, she’s been instrumental in digging deep into the conversation of well-being for our field.  Here’s a short interview with Amy where she normalizes the term “mindfulness” and helps us understand how this skill is acquired and cultivated.

Sign up for the webinar, and let’s learn together how organizations are infusing their workplaces with a mindset for wellness and resilience.  I’m curious to hear what I can do to improve the way we look at our careers through the lens of compassion and humanity.

Let me know if you have a training opportunity that you think could benefit your fellow last responders, forensic scientist practitioners, or any warrior out there climbing the career ladder looking for insight.  I welcome any and all suggestions!

As always, be safe and keep smiling.  Reach out if you need to!  All the best, Nici