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Online training course builds mental health awareness for cops

With a relatable narrative from police officers, the course can help provide clear guidelines on recognizing behavioral health challenges in yourself and your colleagues

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Just like fire, stress can benefit and destroy.


Yoga is effective for reducing the impact of stress experienced by police officers and increasing resiliency to support improved performance in crisis situations The PoliceOne Academy features a one-hour course on yoga for first responders, as well as several other courses that focus on how officers can deal with stress, recognize the signs of depression and understand PTSD. Visit PoliceOne Academy to learn more and for an online demo.

Many college professors have a wonderful benefit called sabbatical leave. In every seventh year of service they can take a semester or more away from their regular teaching duties and devote themselves to research or experiences that will enhance their value to the institution and students for whom they work. It is a shame this hasn’t caught on in law enforcement because the profession could certainly use it.

One thing an officer can do if they have the time is sort through the many services, studies and courses offered by a variety of agencies of the U.S. government. The Department of Justice is an obvious place to start, but there are other agencies that offer relevant assistance to law enforcement. One of these is the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Somewhere among the 25 offices and agencies of the DHHS is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which, among other important initiatives, is a national leader in suicide prevention education.

LE behavioral health issues course

Within the SAMHSA website a number of training courses are available including the Shield of Resilience training course. The course can be completed online in an hour and covers basic information about stress, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide.

With a relatable narrative from police officers, the course can help give clear guidelines on recognizing behavioral health challenges in yourself and your colleagues.

With increasing awareness and attention on mental health as part of officer fitness, performance, retention and prevention of officer misconduct, training at the academy and in-service level can be perfunctory and delivered by personnel with few qualifications.

The Shield of Resilience course could be used as part of a comprehensive stress management program for a law enforcement agency, or a suggested course for supervisors, peer support officers and any individuals interested in self-awareness or aiding colleagues. The course is also an excellent resource for the loved ones of police officers to enhance their understanding of the stresses of law enforcement and how to provide support.

The course provides an evaluation if taken for some type of continuing education credit where available. Course content centers on defining and recognizing characteristics of harmful stress. A module on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a good primer on the origins and symptoms of PTSD. Another section is devoted to suicide. Examples of poor coping behavior, along with healthy alternatives and preventive measures are also included.

I took the course to review it with my own background in counseling and can recommend it as a part of an effort to begin discussion of these vital issues. However, no short course can cover all the information necessary around the complex issues of officer mental health wellness. These subjects should, in my opinion, be more fully addressed as part of a law enforcement agency’s continued training on officer well-being or at each officer’s own initiative.

Here are some items ripe for follow-up:

Benefits of stress

In almost all training, stress continues to be overwhelmingly painted as a bad thing. Although the benefits of the body’s response to stressors are quickly acknowledged in the resilience course, the beneficial aspect of stress deserves more attention. As a recovering adrenaline junkie, I would never want to be without the energy and motivation that stress creates. The anxiety that threats to our immediate and future needs creates provides the impetus for the body chemistry and thought processes necessary to engage with both the ordinary and the unusual. First responders are in love with stress. Trainers can’t continue to disrespect that relationship.

Stress is physiological not emotional

When a life condition is labeled as “mental” or “emotional,” reactions are identified with fleeting, ephemeral and quasi-spiritual thoughts. The reality of stress and especially PTSD is that stressors and traumatic events trigger a dramatic biochemical response in the brain and body. The words we use to describe our awareness of that body chemistry are words we associate with feelings: nervous, anxious, dreadful, excited, overwhelmed, etc. But that feeling vocabulary must be distilled with an awareness of the neurochemical processes surging through us that result in changes in our muscles, sensory awareness and behavior.

A survival skill

Because there are physiological costs to unmanaged acute and chronic stress, performance of duties – especially critical incidents – can suffer. “Stress makes you stupid” is a true saying because decision-making is muddled, the senses are distorted and focus is disrupted. When teaching officers about stress, trainers can truthfully appeal to stress management as essential to their survival skills.

Woe is me

To identify with the law enforcement community, the resilience video, like most stress education efforts aimed at police officers, identifies law enforcement as unique in the world of exposure to trauma. In many ways policing is unique, even among other first responders or emergency workers. But there is also an implied hierarchy of stress that can create both a separation from others who have PTSD or chronic stress conditions, and an excuse for delinquent behavior because “the job made me do it.” Recognizing the biochemical and psychological aspects of stress such as predispositions from family of origin, exposure to multiple trauma events and external stressors can help shed light on causes and treatments without resorting to the easy path of blaming all of one’s trouble on police work.

Organizational Factors

Research and experience indicate that much chronic stress arises from the circumstances of the organizational structure and leadership rather than just the horrible things we may experience on the job. Supportive relationships and affirmation in the aftermath of a traumatic event are key to mitigating and recovering from the trauma. Many departments fail at providing appropriate attention in that regard, and do not allow officers to have a voice in their working conditions.

Who else should get this training?

Training aimed at the individual police officer requires that officer to have a regular means of self-assessment and self-awareness. Stress, anger and depression can all be character components that appear slowly in one’s behavior. These characteristics can also be attributed to a natural maturing process on the way to becoming a veteran officer and accepted as normal and acceptable. The best monitor of an officer’s behavior and health will come from peers, civilian friends and family members. The resilience training might have a greater effect on officers by having their loved ones participate even if the officer doesn’t.

Get counseling

As important as professional help is in the overall picture of managing stress and trauma, there is still a reluctance to seek out that kind of help, as well as the pervasive stigma attached to it. When “get counseling” seems to be the only response and knowing the barriers that exist to getting that help, it is vital that other means of dealing with these issues are taught and emphasized. Therapy for friends and family can help them cope with the “borrowed” stress of a police officer in their lives. It’s also important to emphasize that trauma specialists are preferred therapists and that mere talk therapy without action steps may do little good and some possible harm.

Friend or foe

Just like fire, stress can benefit and destroy. Learning more about the mechanisms of our body and our own patterns of thinking and behaving will help make careers longer and healthier.

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.