Me(n)tal Health in DFIR – It’s Kind of a Big Deal

When I initially started this blog I set a modest goal of making one post a month with the understanding that sometimes life will happen and take priority. Well, life is happening for me this month: an imminent house move, an upcoming presentation at DFRWS USA, the GCFE, and several cases at work have kept me extremely busy. With all that going on there has been absolutely zero time for any research. Being the stubborn person I am, though, I couldn’t NOT post something, so here we are. Fortunately, there are no screenshots this month. 🙂

A few days ago I was cruising around the DFIR Discord channel when someone asked an important question. The question was this: how are examiners/investigators who are exposed to child sexual exploitation material (i.e. child pornography) given mental health support, if any. The few replies that came were all over the place. Some responses indicated they received zero support, others got what I would consider partial support, and one responder indicated they got a lot of support.

Why?

I have the unfortunate experience of being exposed to this material at my current job assignment, and have been for several years now due to past job assignments. No one wants to see it, be around it, or be around individuals who willingly seek out this material. This material doesn’t magically appear out of thin air; it has to be created, which means a child has to be sexually exploited. This is against the law. Period.

Viewing these acts is…terrible.

In addition to the social implications, there is a societal need to investigate people who possess, distribute, and create this material. These investigations are mentally taxing because the material is tough to look at, plain and simple. But, the investigations have to be done. There is no way around it. The well-being of a child is at stake.

The subject matter of these investigations require a special kind of person to do them. I cannot tell you how many times I have had seasoned investigators say to me “I don’t know how you do it. I would jump across the table and kill them.” The thing is that I believe that they would do just that. Investigators/examiners are human, and, just like everyone else, we are all wired differently. Certain things may trigger a severe emotional response in one investigator/examiner, and not trigger a severe emotional response in another. Investigators/examiners who do these types of investigations/examinations have to have a particular mindset. Having done all kinds of criminal investigations and examinations for various criminal offenses, I can tell you, for example, that there is a difference in mindset between dealing with a homicide suspect and an individual who peddles in this material.

Investigators/examiners who are exposed to this material have to keep severe emotional responses in check in order to remain professional and do their job, and it takes a lot of mettle to do this. That mental effort, along with being repeatedly exposed to this material, takes a toll on the mind and the heart. I have seen colleagues crumble under the mental and emotional stress caused by these investigations/examinations, and walk away from investigations/digital forensics. I even had a co-worker take their own life.

And the need for mental fortitude doesn’t just apply to law enforcement investigators/examiners. The private sector has its own set of stressors that takes a mental and physical toll on DFIR personnel that operate in that arena. Long hours, being away from family/friends, conflicting priorities, deadlines and employer/peer expectations can all introduce stress and cause the mind to buckle and suffer.

And, if you think the non-law enforcement DFIR people don’t see some disturbing material, you are wrong. Digital devices act as a sort of safe for the mind (in addition to being the bicycle Steve Jobs liked to talk about), so people will store valuable things in them. Sometimes these valuable things may have a (negative) social stigma associated with them, and the owner wants to keep them secret, afraid that someone will find out their secret. DFIR practitioners who operate in the private/non-law enforcement sector will find this stuff, and while it may not be unlawful to posses the material, it may still be disturbing, so viewing it takes a toll.

I will add that this discussion also applies to those who conduct forensic audio/video examinations. Our team does those exams, too. We have the unfortunate experience, at times, of watching/listening to a person die or be seriously injured or maimed. Audio/video examinations are some of the toughest we do because we actually see/hear the event.

It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way

There have been a few DFIR blog posts published in the past few months that have addressed burnout/mental health in our discipline, so I am not going to re-hash what they have said. They are good articles, and DFIR folks should read them. If you are interested, they are:

Christa Miller (Forensic Focus) – Burnout in DFIR (And Beyond)

Brett Shavers – Only Race Cars Should Burnout

Thom Langford – Drowning, Not Waving

If you are struggling, seek help. Just know that you are not the only one, and there are resources out there to help you, including others in the DFIR community; generally speaking, we are a supportive bunch. Even if your employer doesn’t offer support, the DFIR community will.

One of the responses I saw in the Discord channel indicated that there is a negative connotation around seeking out help for mental health. I understand that because I have worked in environments where expressing mental/emotional distress was seen as a sign of weakness among peers and supervisors. However, I was fortunate enough to find my way into an environment where mental health is taken seriously and when people were in distress (expressed or not), peers and supervisors listened and took action to help. The few responses I saw made me think environments like mine are the exception and not the rule. I hope I am wrong.

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be that way.

What To Do?

I am not a health professional, so I don’t know the answer to the question or if there even IS an answer.

However, I do know mental health is important, in both DFIR and non-DFIR careers. Even for those of us DFIR’ers who are not exposed to child sexual exploitation material on a regular basis, the other major stressors I previously mentioned can have a negative impact on mental health (see Thom’s article above). Our minds are subjected to so much, it would make sense to have someone check it from time to time.

To use Brett Shaver’s car analogy, it would be silly to not take your car in for a maintenance checkup after an extended period of use. Why would you not give your mind the same checkup by someone who is licensed to do so? We do that for our physical bodies (most of us do, anyway), so why not for the mind? Our minds and bodies are symbiotic just like the systems in a car; a change in one can affect the other, good or bad. If your mind starts to break down due to ongoing mental stress, it can have a negative impact on your physical health…just like a breakdown in one system in a car can negatively impact other systems in the car. This impacts overall performance. A breakdown in your mind can have the same effect on your physical health, job performance, personal habits, and interpersonal relationships.

I have been in supportive environments, and am now responsible for not only maintaining that type of environment, but looking after team members’ well-being. Their families have entrusted my organization with their well-being, and my organization has delegated that responsibility to me. Those of you who supervise a DFIR team have the same responsibility, whether you realize it or not. Sure, one more thing to be responsible for, but guess what. You are in THE seat, and this is extremely important.

For those of you who are not supervisors, you should be looking out for your colleagues, and that includes your supervisor. I have tried to establish a relationship with my fellow team members that encourages free flowing communication, regardless of whether it is positive or negative, and I have experienced both. I would like to think they would come to me if they noticed a change in my behavior.

Again, I am not a health professional, and I am not sure there is a one-size-fits-all answer to how an organization effectively deals with mental health issues for DFIR. That being said I thought I would share what my organization does to try and keep a healthy environment for its DF examiners (we have no incident response function). What we do may work for other organizations, it may not, but I do want to show that it can be done.

An Example

The first thing, and I think this probably the most important, is that we have agency buy-in. If we did not have support from our administration, the rest of what we do would not happen. They fully support what we do and they recognize that happy employees are not only productive employees, but employees that are more likely to stay than to leave. What does that support entail? Well, they provide the funding and approve policies. Without those two things, it would have been impossible to do anything. Again, this applies to my organization, which happens to be 400-ish strong (only three of us are DF). If your agency is small and not very bureaucratic, you may have an easier time with this.

Policies. Some may roll their eyes at them, despise them, or completely ignore them. Regardless of you feelings toward them, they work for the purposes here. Our policy requires….requires…that our examiners go see a licensed psychologist at least once a year and the organization pays for the visit. (Update: this is separate from the employee assistance program, or EAP). Having this in the policy puts the agency on the hook, so to speak, and my organization is completely ok with that. Again, they fully support the mission and the employees who carry out that mission. By making the visit mandatory in a policy, it inoculates it (somewhat) from budget shortfalls which we encounter from time to time.

If a DF employee requests to go to see a licensed psychologist after/before their annual visit because they feel they are struggling, we send them, and the organization pays for it, no questions asked. Any examination (regardless of what it is for) can suddenly hit an examiner the wrong way at the wrong time and have a detrimental effect on their mental health. We realize that, thus we do not tell the employee “Can’t this wait until your scheduled visit?” No, we send them as quickly as we can get an appointment. Again, this is separate from EAP.

Along those same lines, we also realize that an examination may not have a contemporaneous emotional effect, and that it can take a while for the emotional distress to manifest itself to the point the examiner realizes there is a problem, or others notice a change. Again, this is why we do not lock them in to a set schedule.

There is a second part of this. Sometimes we carry our work home with us. If we are struggling at work, we can carry that home with us, and that can start to wear on our family members/significant others who live in the home with us. Our policy allows for a DF spouse to go see a licensed psychologist, too. They may need help helping the examiner cope, or they may need to offload what the examiner offloads on them. Just like the examiner, the spouse can go multiple times if needed, and, the agency pays for it.

Meet Our Lady

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Who in DFIR doesn’t like dog pictures? Well, this isn’t just any random dog. Meet Lady. She is the therapy K-9 that is attached to our team. Lady is considered a working K-9, just like a K-9 who detects narcotics or explosives, so the usual rules apply to her (e.g. no people food). She is considered an employee; she has an identification badge, a uniform, and an entry in the employee directory.

Just like other working dogs, Lady lives with her handler, who is a member of our DF team. She is a part of our family, and we treat her as such.

Lady came to us by way of the Paws and Stripes program at the Brevard County, Florida Sheriff’s Office. I will not get in to the specifics of that program, but just know she came to us after having undergone four months of training at the program site. We have a separate policy that addresses Lady. It addresses things such as her medical care, food, lodging, grooming, appearance, the person who is responsible for Lady (her handler), and certification requirements. Just as an example, my organization pays for all food and medical care so as long as she is able to serve in her official capacity. In the event she is not able to serve, she retires from service. The Director of my organization has the final say-so about with whom she retires, but, in keeping with standards, she would probably retire with her handler. Once that occurs, the handler absorbs the cost of food, but my organization will continue to pay for medical care for Lady until her death. We believe Lady is around 2 years old (she was rescued from a shelter), so we plan on her being with us for a LONG time.

Lady is a certified therapy K-9, and is certified through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. You can read more about that organization and the certification requirements here.

In my opinion, this K-9 program is money well-spent. The mental health benefits Lady provides really is incalculable. Not only to the DF examiners, but to the organization as a whole. For the DF examiners she can be a pleasant distraction; whether it’s to take her out to potty, or to just toss a ball or frisbee, she can provide a short, necessary, and welcome distraction from tough examinations. Lady is intuitive, too. She can sense if someone is having a hard time, and happily go apply a wet nose to a leg or hand to get your attention, which gets you out from behind your workstation and not thinking about your exam.

The budget for Lady is modest compared to other costs in my organization. We budget around $1600 (USD) per year, but we have yet to come close to tapping that whole pot of money. If we were to lose an examiner due to mental health issues, we would have to spend time recruiting and hiring (my hourly salary plus the others involved) and training (DFIR training is not cheap) a replacement. From a financial perspective, Lady is “spend a little money up front, save a lot of money later.” By investing in Lady, we invest in the mental health of our examiners.

Here’s a picture of Lady hard at work….or not. I promise she has beds scattered all throughout our work areas (along with toys).

And here is a picture of her when she visited a medical facility over the holidays (periodic therapy visits outside of work are a requirement of her certification).

And the last one (I feel like a parent). One of our team members rides his motorcycle into work when the weather is nice. Lady randomly hopped up there one afternoon (she wasn’t allowed to ride on the bike).

From a supervisory standpoint there are a couple of things that I do to help with mental health. A small thing is rotating examination types. In other words, if an examiner has had a tough examination, I will assign a not-so-tough subject matter examination after that (“not-so-tough”, of course is subjective). For example, if an examiner had a child sexual exploitation examination, I try to assign something else other than a child sexual exploitation to that examiner for their next exam or two. Sometimes, our case queue will not allow for this, but I am monitoring what exam types they are working and doing what I can from that angle.

Another small thing that I do is leave my door open as much as I can, i.e. I have an open door policy. Usually every morning the team stops by the office, coffee in hand, and have a seat. We discuss current examinations and any issues that have risen during those examinations. A lot of times we are trading ideas on ways to overcome those issues. We also discuss other ancillary subjects and non-work related matters, too. I appreciate that communication and exchange of ideas. I typically learn something from those discussions, too. I will note, that this is not a required meeting…it just happens, and it may happen again, spontaneously, throughout the workday.

While I am invested in and appreciative of our daily discussions, these discussions also serve another purpose: I get a chance to observe the team. Is there any change in their mood or behavior that I can detect? Have they said anything that gives me cause for concern? Are they passively expressing some type of emotional distress? Does any change I detect coincide with a current or recent examination they have conducted? I am looking and listening for these things. As I mentioned before, their families have lent them to the citizens of our state via our organization to deal with some of the toughest subject matters in the criminal justice system. I would be remiss if I didn’t take their well-being to heart.

We try to go out for a team dinner, off-site, after hours every so often. The team usually leaves a little early and heads to the location, and I stay behind for a bit and meet them. We’ll discuss a few work-related matters and then we officially go off the clock. Work is done, and so is our discussion of it. I will say that schedules have been all over the place as of late so we are a bit off schedule.  This happens.  

Encouraging team members to not feel bad when taking time off from work is something I have noticed that I have to do every so often. I usually have to do this when something unexpected arises and causes a team member to request leave on short notice. Life happens…to all of us…at some point during our career. Whether you work in DFIR or not, things will happen outside of your work that will require you to divert your focus and energy from your work to that thing, whatever it is. Diverting like that requires time away from work, and that’s ok. That’s what paid time off (PTO) is for.

Conclusion

I hope readers find this helpful.  Mental health in our field is an important subject, and it is one that I don’t think gets talked about enough.  If you have any questions about our program or anything else, please feel free to reach out; I am responsive to communication through the site. 

Mental health is something that impacts all of us in DFIR.  It is important that we recognize that and to take steps to foster environments in which mental health is taken seriously and not dismissed.

Take care of yourselves, and each other.