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Building Mental Resiliency

Officer survival requires both physical and psychological training and fitness.

October 07, 2015  |  by Todd Brimm

Officer down. These two simple words are some of the most powerful in modern American language. For those outside of the law enforcement community they evoke images from TV and movie scenes of officers frantically rushing to the aid of a fallen comrade. For officers those two words mean that not just a friend, not just a co-worker, but a member of the "family" is in potentially life-threatening physical trouble. It's too bad there's not a similar alarming radio call for when an officer is in potentially life-threatening mental distress.

Officer survival is typically understood as overcoming a potentially deadly or dangerous encounter on the streets. Fortunately, the tools and tactics that law enforcement agencies have at their disposal continue to improve and the result is that officers are able to do their jobs while mitigating physical danger as much as possible. However, the reality is that too many law enforcement officers eventually succumb to the hazards of their careers indirectly because of the psychological effects of their profession. And there is no body armor for the mind and the psyche.

The psychological and emotional effects that are often the products of a career in law enforcement can be severe. And in many instances officers and retired officers lose the battles for their minds and spirits.

Mental and emotional health are necessary for sustaining a positive, healthy lifestyle. And when officers suffer from poor mental and emotional health, citizen complaints against them go up, performance goes down, and oftentimes, officers are not as effective as they could be. This issue is not a morale issue, it is not even a leadership issue because leadership is only one side of the coin, but rather it is a resiliency issue and, because of this, mental resiliency should be on the organizational agenda of law enforcement executives. Resiliency training has already been implemented, measured, and proven to be effective in sustaining the lives of combat veterans in our military, and it will work for civilian first responders who are engaged in battles on our streets every day.

The Military Model

As defined by numerous scholars and clinicians, mental resiliency entails the maintenance of normal functioning despite negative events or circumstances, disruptions, or changes in demands.

Experts tell us there are three predominant outside influences that act against normal functioning for law enforcement officers: the organizations they work for; the environments in which they work; and the requirements of serving the public. As it is often said, people do not call the police when everything is going well.

Unfortunately, law enforcement organizations often look to leadership alone to resolve problems within the agency. Although good leadership can mitigate negative events for law enforcement officers, the psychological and emotional effects are still present and must be dealt with. Resiliency training is a tool for dealing with those effects. Through resiliency training leadership can help foster a positive organizational climate and help curtail the negative stressors prevalent in the law enforcement community.

It was not long after the beginning of the Global War on Terror in 2001 that the Army implemented its master resiliency training program to help soldiers deal with the stresses of working in a combat environment and being away from their families. The program is called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness; the word "comprehensive" was used because it covered the strength of the soldier's mind as well as the soldier's body.

Such training is, in more familiar terms, known as popular psychology or "pop-psychology." Unfortunately, this term sometimes removes the potency of this art and makes it more akin to a fad than a phenomenon. However, resiliency training is here to stay, and the sooner the law enforcement community utilizes resiliency training, the better off everyone will be.

Resiliency has its earliest roots in the studies centered on "learned helplessness." In the 1960s, psychologists conducted experiments on animals in situations where they were given mildly painful shocks with the normal response of trying to escape. Soon in the experiment, however, they simply accepted the shocks with no attempt to escape. Later experiments were conducted with people with loud, annoying noises with the same result. In resiliency training, the shocks or the noise are simply negative thoughts, sometimes referred to as "thinking traps." Thinking traps are negative thoughts that capture the emotion and the autonomic responses of the soldier. Although the soldier actually has the ability to escape the trap, he or she just accepts being in the trap through a prolonged, negative outlook, and it is in this mental trap that mental resiliency breaks down.

Saving Lives

The Army conducted an experiment by comparing a unit that received resiliency training with a unit that did not receive the training, the control group. The results concluded that resiliency training was in fact effective, especially with younger soldiers, regardless of gender.

Additional studies revealed that having resiliency trainers embedded with smaller units such as platoons was even more effective. This is important as law enforcement executives consider the overall effectiveness of their agencies and consider how resiliency training may one day positively impact their agencies on both the macro and micro management level (when it is implemented).

Consider the following facts and statistics from research:

  • Law enforcement officers have a higher rate of obesity than the general population
  • The suicide rate for peace officers is higher than the rate for the general population
  • Peace officers are more likely to suffer from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes
  • An estimated 40% of peace officers in the United States have a sleep disorder
  • The divorce rate for law enforcement officers is at least 60% and maybe even as high as 75% while the national divorce rate is 50%
  • The average life span of an officer after retirement is only two to five years.

The organizational response to these issues has often been promoting a wellness program that involves physical exercise or relaxation techniques as an approach for increased health and dealing with stress. This approach, according to experts, falls short of achieving the results needed to help law enforcement officers break out of negative thinking traps that are prevalent in the law enforcement profession and can ultimately tie directly into poor work performance, strained family relationships, and serious health issues.

Currently, outside of a wellness program, the next resource for law enforcement agencies to promote officer resiliency would be mental health or cognitive therapy programs that require the officer to pursue professional mental health treatment. Unfortunately, pursuing mental health therapy is often a difficult step to take for officers who fear career repercussions, although it should not be.

In contrast, resiliency training is very similar to cognitive therapy, which does not carry the same stigma as psychological treatment. Resiliency training follows the same basic approach as cognitive therapy, except it is less intense and is presented by a co-worker in the work environment rather than a therapist. It relies upon the officer's rational thinking as outlined in the training to enable that officer to self-correct negative thought patterns and spring from any thinking traps.

Getting Help

Effective law enforcement leaders realize how important mental health is to law enforcement officers and the negative stressors that the "unknown" can often play upon the cognitive well-being of first responders.

Too often, law enforcement executives measure success by crime numbers or the acquisition of technology for their departments because these are tangible items. Leaders must learn to take the extra step to deliver services that their officers can utilize to maintain effectiveness and efficiency.

In the popular sitcom, "Everybody Loves Raymond" the character of Sgt. Robert Barone told his future girlfriend that his job (as an NYPD officer) "was just hours of boredom interrupted by moments of unbelievable horror." The line in the sitcom was designed to elicit laughter, but it is no laughing matter that law enforcement officers do experience a lot of ups and downs in their careers, and it is a factor to be considered in the life and health of law enforcement officers.

Law enforcement officers need to be able to have a positive outlook in their work and in their lives to provide the best possible service to the communities they serve. Few in the community appreciate that law enforcement officers need a positive outlook to provide professional service to the community.

If you are a decision-maker for your agency, you can reach out to the U.S. Army Master Resiliency Training Unit at Fort Knox, Ky., and send officers who can effectively serve in this capacity to the free two-day training course at Fort Knox or get information on possible training sites in your area. For information on free resiliency training contact Kathy Berry at (502) 624-3526.

Law enforcement leaders can also apply for grant funding to pay for resiliency or positive psychology training. One specific organization that has grant funding available for employee well-being is the National Institute of Health (NIH.gov). Grant funding can be utilized to bring in subject-matter experts to write curricula and train your trainers.

Todd Brimm is a first-line supervisor with the Louisville (Ky.) Metro Police Department and also served in the U.S. Army chaplain corps for four years. He currently serves as a Military Police Company Commander for a training battalion. Brimm holds a master of arts degree in criminal justice, a master of divinity degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is a graduate from the Academy of Police Supervision (DOCJT), the Southern Police Institute (AOC 131), and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.


Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

Brian O'Donovan @ 6/7/2016 4:47 AM

I came to this web site via researching OODA loops and am happy that I did so. The military and police are far ahead of the civilian world now in terms of talking about psychological ill health and more importantly, its prevention through proper training of both staff and management. As an RN, I will continue read and hopefully learn from the articles (such as this one) on this site. So thank you for information.

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