AUSTIN (KXAN) — After years of using the method to treat city officers, the Austin Police Department’s staff psychologist is kicking off a new study to show the effectiveness of a specific type of trauma treatment on law enforcement professionals.
The study is being funded by a $38,000 grant from the city’s Office of Innovation and will test the treatment method on 911 call-takers and police dispatchers.
The treatment, called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, has been around since the late 1980s; Dr. Carol Logan has used the protocol with Austin officers since she started with the department in 2003.
In an interview with KXAN, Logan described EMDR as a way to help those suffering from post-traumatic stress reprocess traumatic memories in a way that allows them to deal with the thoughts in a healthy way.
“The analogy would be like a carpenter who’s using a hammer and a screwdriver who all of a sudden gets power tools,” Logan said.
Traumatic memories are stored in the brain differently from normal memories, Logan said, bundled with all the emotion, images and sounds that happen in the moment the trauma takes place. When something triggers that memory, “you get everything all at once and it feels like it’s happening now.”
EMDR helps patients reprocess those memories so they’re stored more normally and can be accessed without recalling the trauma itself, Logan said.
“We are traumatizing them as the city of Austin in asking them to be our guardians,” Logan said, “so it’s the least we can do to help clean that out of their brain.”
EMDR asks patients to talk about the traumatic memory, at which point the therapist starts employing some kind of bilateral stimulation — basically anything that you can sense going back and forth.
Logan uses a wand for her patients to follow with her eyes, but other psychologists motion with their hands, tap their patients’ knees back and forth, or ask the subjects to hold paddles that vibrate one at a time. The alternating sides allows the brain to engage with and reprocess trauma memories, Logan said, allowing them to be stored like normal ones.
The EMDR study, which will collect data through the summer, will include 60 call-takers and dispatchers. Those professionals, Logan said, often deal with trauma from responding to people in crisis, but are often overlooked.
Kathy Yarbrough knows that all too well. “I did have an officer killed,” she remembered. “June 2, 1995, 7:00 in the evening. He was hit by a drunk driver.”
Yarbrough has been a dispatcher for three decades, with the last 23 years dispatching for APD. She said she felt responsible for the officer’s death, since she was the one who sent that officer on the call.
“And it took months to not have nightmares,” she said, “because all you could hear was the other officer screaming.”
Logan believes the treatment can help people like Yarbrough, though the study is not to the point yet where subjects have been identified. Half of the 60 will receive EMDR and the other half will receive stress management treatment, the most common method currently being used to treat post-traumatic stress. The results, the psychologist hopes, will help win more grants to expand the study to include officers.
The study, she believes, can help create a program for other departments to implement treatment plans similar to the one she’s used successfully with APD officers.