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Officers to become mental health liaisons through new training program

St. Petersburg College in Florida has developed an innovative certificate program to bring mental health training and resources to officers through a peer support model

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St. Petersburg Police Department officer and Sun Coast PBA President Jonathan Vazquez welcomes the first cohort of the St. Petersburg College Applied Mental Health Advanced Technical Certificate program in August 2023.

Photo/St. Petersburg College

By Chief Anthony Holloway

As law enforcement officers, we must constantly navigate a world filled with danger and emotional strain. Simultaneously, as humans, we must balance the stress of our work with personal challenges at home.

We adapt to the stresses of work and life by developing coping mechanisms that, while effective in the short term, can be harmful in the long run. We often rely on quick fixes to hold ourselves together until these methods become unsustainable. Tragically, this approach to managing mental health challenges can have dire consequences.

According to a 2022 Ruderman Family Foundation study, approximately one-third of law enforcement officers exhibit symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) throughout their careers. Additionally, the study highlights a higher suicide rate among police officers compared to deaths in the line of duty, presenting a stark reality.

Nearly four years after the initial Ruderman report in 2018, the numbers haven’t changed much, but the stresses of our society have only increased. There is an urgent need for change in our law enforcement culture to create more robust mental health support systems for our officers in need.

Recognizing this opportunity in our community, St. Petersburg College (SPC) has taken a groundbreaking step by launching the Applied Mental Health Advanced Technical Certificate program for law enforcement officers and first responders. This initiative equips officers with the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate the complexities of mental health and in return provides their fellow officers with an additional resource to turn to during times of need.

Collaboration and community support are key to bringing an idea to reality

After handling the legal aspects of over 1,600 officer discipline cases through the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association, St. Petersburg Police Department officer and Sun Coast PBA President Jonathan Vazquez, along with legal counsel Sasha Lohn, Esq., noticed a pattern. Officers facing challenges on the job were frequently grappling with significant personal issues — such as a spouse’s depression or a child’s addiction. The combined pressures of professional and personal life were impairing their decision-making abilities and impacting their effectiveness as police officers. In response, Vazquez and Lohn started exploring ideas to enhance officers’ capacity for empathy and kindness. This led to the inception of a curriculum aimed at boosting emotional intelligence and empowering officers to support their colleagues.

The year-long program is designed to equip participants with the knowledge and skills necessary to manage job-related stressors, as well as assist fellow officers facing mental health challenges.

As a pioneering institution and a leader in workforce education within our community, St. Petersburg College readily embraced this challenge. SPC President Tonjua Williams tasked her Social/Behavioral Sciences & Human Services team with creating a curriculum tailored to this distinct community need. With the backing and crucial funding from Florida government leaders and local foundation grants, SPC initiated the Applied Mental Health Advanced Technical Certificate pilot program in August 2023. This program started with a cohort of 14 officers from various law enforcement agencies throughout the Tampa Bay area.

Providing an additional layer of support and opportunity

The year-long program is designed to equip participants with the knowledge and skills necessary to manage job-related stressors effectively, as well as to assist fellow officers and community members facing mental health challenges. Throughout their training, officers develop a variety of skills, including:

● Emotional intelligence, counseling skills and interview techniques to effectively support individuals experiencing mental health crises.

● The ability to identify mental health issues in need of appropriate assessment in professional practice

● Access to resources to successfully navigate peers to a higher level of care, when needed.

The objective is to foster a safer and more empathetic environment where seeking support is actively encouraged and not stigmatized. Upon completion of the first cohort’s training in Summer 2024, participants will be qualified to act as mental health liaisons within their respective agencies. This role will offer an additional layer of support for fellow officers in need. Officers who complete the certificate program in our agency have committed to serving in this capacity for a minimum of three years, ensuring sustained impact and continuous support within the law enforcement community.

This pathway offers officers the opportunity to become licensed mental health professionals, should they wish to pursue a career change.

Another significant advantage of the SPC Mental Health Certificate program is that participating officers earn college credits. These credits can be applied toward further education or can facilitate a transition into a master’s level program. This pathway offers officers the opportunity to become licensed mental health professionals, should they wish to pursue a career change. This feature not only enhances their current capabilities but also opens up new professional avenues for the future.

Cops supporting cops: Shared experience can instill trust and create comfort

The program is intentionally structured to be conducted in-person and is exclusively available to law enforcement officers and first responders. This format fosters an atmosphere of trust and camaraderie among participants, creating a strong foundation that can be carried back into their professional roles.

The courses are led by mental health professionals, among whom are former law enforcement officers who have transitioned to become licensed mental health professionals. This unique blend of instructors is well-positioned to mentor participants, especially those interested in pursuing a similar career trajectory in the field of mental health.

Upon the completion of the certificate program, our agency will implement a general order to inform our officers about the availability of these qualified individuals as resources. Although we already have a Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) program in place, facilitated by a contracted clinical psychologist, the expectation is that officers who have earned the Mental Health Certificate will serve as a more accessible and approachable resource. This initiative aims to provide support for officers who may need to discuss issues or seek guidance on managing the daily stresses of police work and personal challenges, offering an additional layer of support within our law enforcement community.

Addressing the stigma of mental health care and creating a new model for wellness

With the necessary tools now established, it falls upon us, as leaders in law enforcement, to tackle the stigma associated with seeking mental health support. Overcoming these deeply ingrained attitudes and beliefs will be challenging and demands concerted effort from all quarters — law enforcement leadership at every level, mental health professionals and advocacy groups. The key to effecting this change lies in continuously raising awareness through shared experiences and open discussions, fostering an environment where seeking help is normalized and encouraged.

The launch of the Mental Health Certificate program at St. Petersburg College marks a significant advancement in our community, showcasing a forward-thinking approach to prioritizing the mental health of police officers. We hope that this initiative will serve as a blueprint for other jurisdictions, encouraging them to collaborate with educational institutions to address this vital need. By recognizing the emotional complexities inherent in police work and developing resources to offer genuine support, SPC is delivering a compelling message: the health and safety of our communities are intrinsically linked to the mental and emotional well-being of our police officers. By uniting to equip them with the resilience tools they need, we can foster a safer environment for everyone.

If you would like more information about St. Petersburg College’s Applied Mental Health Advanced Technical Certificate program and its curriculum, I encourage you to reach out to Program Director Dr. Latresha Moore at (727) 497-5015 or Academic Program Coordinator Dr. Meredith Moran, a former police officer and licensed mental health counselor at (727) 341-7952, or email and

About the author

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Chief Anthony Holloway was selected in August 2014 to serve as chief of police for the St. Petersburg Police Department. He began his law enforcement career in 1985 with the Clearwater Police Department and has served as chief of police for the City of Somerville, Massachusetts, and rejoined Clearwater Police Department in 2010 to serve as that agency’s chief. Chief Holloway has taught law enforcement to national and international governmental, military, educational and community organizations. He was named the 2020 Outstanding Chief Executive of the Year by the Florida Police Chiefs Association in recognition of his exceptional performance and support and advancement of the law enforcement profession. In February 2024, Chief Holloway was presented with the Florida Holocaust Museum’s Loebenberg Humanitarian Award.