Monday, March 17, 2014

Meet Ellen Kirschman

Today my guest is Ellen Kirschman, author, police and public safety psychologist, and consultant to first responders. We met at the PSWA conference in July of 2013. She has a fascinating story to tell, so I asked her to share it with you. 

Lorna: Before you became a psychologist, did you envision working in public safety? How did you get involved? 

Ellen: I worked two years as a probation officer, both juvenile and adult, investigation and supervision. I liked the excitement and the opportunity to enter into people's lives, people I would never have met otherwise. What I didn't like—remember this was a very long time ago—was the lack of resources available to help kids and how the law was applied differently to boys and girls. For example, whenever a girl became pregnant and applied for welfare, she was automatically referred to probation. The boys just got hi-fives from their buddies. Every time a girl was arrested we were obliged to get her sexual history, even if the offense was shoplifting. That may have been relevant to her current circumstances, but we never asked boys for those same intimate details. I didn't like locking kids up when there weren't enough beds for them to sleep on and I didn't like locking up runaways when their best and wisest options seemed to be running away from an abusive or disordered family.

Some probation officers hate writing reports. I loved it. I've loved writing since I was a child. One of my senior supervisors told me that a report I had submitted was the best he had ever read. With one exception; he didn't think it had anything to do with the client. Forty years later I'm still turning my real work into fiction.

Learning to work more effectively with families is what motivated me to go back to school to get a Masters in Social Work. I then spent seven years working as a therapist in a psychiatric clinic. Several of my clients were married to police officers and experiencing serious marital problems. When I asked the officers to join us in counseling—once again this was a long time ago and most officers were males—no one ever did, and shortly thereafter the wives quit therapy. This piqued my interest and I began explore the ways being a cop affected family life. I put together a class called "I Love a Cop" at the local community college and the day the catalog came out the class was filled and there were forty women on the wait list. This told me I had found an unserved need. Once again I went back to school, this time for my doctorate in clinical psychology. My dissertation, "Wounded Heroes," focused on police stress. It was kind of a cross between Sigmund Freud and Mickey Spillane. 

Lorna: Having met you, I know you have a real heart for first responders with post-traumatic stress. Was this always a particular interest for you? 

Ellen: I have an enormous amount of respect for police officers and first responders in general. They do what the rest of us couldn't or wouldn't. Police, in particular, have enormously complex jobs. They are hybrid humans; part enforcer, counselor, priest, lawyer, protector, and judge. The many acts of kindness and courage they do every day is overlooked while the rare scandal or mistake or tragic accident makes headlines. Their jobs wear on them emotionally and physically. In my opinion, they deserve a lot more respect and support than they get, both from the public and their own organizations. One of the reasons I wrote Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know (with colleagues Mark Kamena and Joel Fay, both of whom are psychologists and retired cops) is that it's very hard for officers to ask for professional help. When they do, they deserve to see clinicians who understand the law enforcement culture; what they do, and why they do it.
Lorna: I know you are now teaching. Where and when to you do this? What kinds of things do you talk about? 

Ellen: My teaching has taken me to four countries and twenty-two states. I hold workshops for first responder couples, teach self-care to cops, train peer supporters, and educate counselors about the specific techniques and challenges working with the public safely population including cops, fire fighters, dispatchers, correctional officers , and animal service officers.
Lorna: What should the lay public understand about how to deal with family and friends suffering from post-traumatic stress? Any tips or advice? 

Ellen: It takes patience. Living with someone who has post-traumatic stress is an emotional roller coaster for the victim and his or her friends and family. Sometimes there isn't much you can do except listen with compassion, keep your expectations realistic, and read everything you can about post-traumatic stress injuries. My colleagues and I prefer the term injury to disorder, as disorder suggests the condition is permanent. Post-traumatic stress can be cured. Check out the You-Tube video "With help it gets better:" This was made by graduates of the West Coast Post Trauma Retreat ( I volunteer at four six-day retreats a year. We also sponsor three retreats for the spouses and significant others of first responders. More information can be found at

Lorna: Your first books were nonfiction dealing with policemen and firefighters: Counseling Cops: What the Family Needs to Know, I Love a Firefighter: What the Family Needs to Know, and I Love a Cop: What the Family Needs to Know. All of these relate directly to your work. Why did you decide to write a fictional mystery: Burying Ben? 

Ellen: I must have been crazy. I actually thought it would be easier to make things up. It isn't. It's way harder. Writing a mystery about police suicide is timely. Cops are twice to three times more likely to kill themselves than they are to be killed in the line of duty. This is a little known fact that is now being openly addressed by police professionals across the US. I've always wondered how I would react if a client committed suicide. Writing Burying Ben gave me a chance to think about it more deeply. It also gave me the opportunity for payback. I had a lot of fun taking pot shots at cops, psychologists, some ex-husbands, and myself.
Lorna: What do you do to relax and get away from an obviously stressful career? 

Ellen: While there have been many stressful moments in my career, I've had a lot of fun. First responders are a lively bunch who love to laugh. For the most part they are sturdy, healthy people with work-related problems. It is an honor to share their stories. At retreats, especially, I get way more than I give. But I do try to practice what I preach. I'm an inveterate traveler, I like to cook, I'm learning to play the ukulele, and these days I'm working out in water aerobics, wiggling around in the pool with the other aging bathing beauties. 

Lorna: Is there anything else you would like us to know about you? 

Ellen: A second Dot Meyerhoff Mystery is in the works. The awful first draft is awaiting revision. I chose the name Dot Meyerhoff because my mother's name is Dorothy but everyone called her Dot, and my maternal grand-mother's maiden name is Meyerhoff. My husband is a retired remodeling contractor turned photographer (—not a cop. I don't love a cop, never even had a date with one, although I love a fire fighter, my brother was a volunteer for many years.

I appreciate the opportunity to be on your blog. Mystery writing is a new universe for me. I'm finding mystery writers to be a warm, welcoming bunch.
About Ellen Kirschman:
I have been a police and public safety psychologist for thirty-plus years, before I had any gray hair. My work with first responders has taken me to four countries and twenty-two states.

I no longer have a private practice. Instead, I spend my time writing, teaching, and volunteering as a clinician at the West Coast Post Trauma Retreat for first responders. You can read about my books on my website:
I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know was my first book and, to date, it has sold more than 100,000 copies. I Love a Fire Fighter: What the Family Needs to Know came next, prompted by the tragic events of September 11th. Following that I wrote Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know, third in the "need to know" series, with two psychology colleagues, both of whom are retired cops. 

Burying Ben, my first-ever mystery, received first prize for the not-yet-in-print novel from the Public Safety Writers Association. Writing fiction is a new skill for me. I used to think that making things up would be easier than writing non-fiction. What a delusion! Creating a story that captures the reader's attention from page one is a tricky business.

On a more personal note, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area with my husband, who is a photographer (he took the photos for all my books) and retired remodeling contractor. In our spare time we hike, travel, and cook—not in that order.

I enjoy hearing from my readers and from mystery fans. And I love seeing your reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and Facebook. Follow me on Facebook:


  1. Replies
    1. My pleasure. I enjoyed your questions. See you at LCC

  2. I've admired Ellen and her work for a long time now. Great interview, Lorna!

    1. Thanks, Marilyn. She's had a fascinating career!

    2. Hi Marilyn:
      You are such a mensch. (I hope you know what that is, if you don't it's all good.) And you are an inspiration.

  3. I'm an admirer also, having met Ellen several times, know what a genuine person she is. Wishing you much success as you continue in the mystery genre--my favorite! And Lorna, looking forward to seeing you next week!


    1. Thanks for stopping by. Looking forward to LCC! See you soon!

    2. Hi Madeline: So glad to know you'll be at LCC. Let's grab some time together.