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Reducing the impact of scenario training on officer mental health

Follow these six strategies to ensure your department’s scenario training doesn’t result in undesirable side-effects

Police training in progess

Scenario training can lead to undesired side effects like sleep disturbances, persistent thoughts, resentment and ineffective coping mechanisms.

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By Genevieve Altwer, LMFT

The influence of traumatic job-related incidents, including severe car accidents, suicides and violent confrontations, on the mental health of police officers is widely recognized. These incidents can potentially lead to depression, generalized anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder/Injury (PTSD/I).

Fortunately, the broader discourse is addressing these grave, occasionally career-terminating, mental health implications. Numerous police departments now offer specialized mental health support, ranging from counseling and chaplaincy programs to psychiatric assistance and peer interventions, especially in the aftermath of a traumatic event.

However, an equally important yet often overlooked domain is the mental health consequences arising from scenario training days. These training sessions are customary for all officers, with many departments conducting them on a quarterly basis.

The primary objective of simulation/scenario training is twofold: to ensure officer safety and to empower them to save lives. Such simulations prepare officers for real-world situations such as domestic violence interventions, high-risk traffic stops and in-progress crimes. This helps in refining their decision-making skills under extreme pressure.

When officers engage in this type of training, they might not always achieve the desired outcome or might react slower than necessary. As a consequence, they might be “shot” or attacked by the individual role-playing as the antagonist. Even though officers intellectually understand that the scenario is a simulation, their nervous system reacts as if it’s a genuine threat, triggering the fight-or-flight response. This requires the body to recover and recalibrate. Regrettably, many officers immediately transition to subsequent scenarios without adequate recovery time, only to later resume their regular duties or head home. This continuous stress leaves their sympathetic nervous system in a heightened state without adequate time to reset.

Scenario training can lead to undesired side effects like sleep disturbances, persistent thoughts, resentment and ineffective coping mechanisms. To counteract these effects, departments should design training programs that prioritize and support officer wellness, minimizing potential adverse impacts.

Following intensive scenario training, it’s not uncommon for officers to experience a gamut of negative symptoms, from sleep disturbances and persistent ruminative thoughts to resentment and maladaptive coping strategies. A proactive approach to training that prioritizes officer well-being can substantially reduce these potential adverse effects.

Strategies to enhance officer wellness during scenario training

Depending on the frequency of training in a department, the following recommendations ensure the mental health of your police officers is protected before, during and after scenario training, specifically those involving simulated, high-risk incidents.

1. Awareness of participants

Has the department recently encountered a distressing event, such as a violent altercation or a shooting? Command staff should be cognizant of individuals who may be particularly vulnerable to the strains of intensive training sessions, both emotionally and physically. Training personnel should proactively engage in dialogues concerning participants’ comfort levels, preparedness and potential training adjustments.

Based on these discussions, decisions can be made regarding the suitability of proceeding with training for each officer. In instances where a recent traumatic event has taken place, it is advisable to postpone the training, ensuring that all affected officers have been afforded adequate time and resources to address their psychological well-being in relation to that event.

2. Clear communication

Collaborate with your training team to determine the execution of each training scenario, emphasizing consistency. Ensure that trainers provide a supportive and encouraging environment. Additionally, clarify the details of each incident scenario to the participants and address any queries they might have in an unbiased manner. It’s essential for participants to feel as well-equipped and informed as the given scenario permits.

3. Balancing surprise with sensitivity

Certainly, the elements of surprise and stress are integral to effective training. It’s essential that the protocols for each scenario be meticulously planned and mutually agreed upon. Given the inherently unpredictable nature of policing, training must strike a balance between preparing officers for diverse challenges and avoiding deceitful methods that might only serve to mislead or bewilder them. Such an approach not only reduces the potential for trauma but also guards against negative mental health repercussions and undue panic during field operations.

4. Transitioning out of hypervigilance

During intense training sessions like building searches and high-risk vehicle stops, officers are primed to respond swiftly, placing them in a prolonged fight-or-flight state throughout the day of training.

Before reintegrating into their daily routines, it’s crucial for these participants to transition out of this heightened state of alertness. One effective approach is to conclude the training day with a calming or physical activity that releases positive endorphins. Consider incorporating a 20-30-minute yoga session or a group workout as a suitable wrap-up activity.

5. Reflective debriefing

Debriefing training sessions in smaller groups fosters reflection and offers a platform for social support. This approach enables officers to connect with peers, discussing the successes and challenges of the training. It also provides a space for officers to address and comprehend any emotions that may have arisen, equipping them with healthy coping strategies.

In 2011, FLETC’s Training Innovation Division undertook a study titled “Stress and Decision Making,” which focused on scenario training. The study indicated that a “Student-Centered Feedback” approach, compared to an “Instructor-Centered Feedback” method, enhanced students’ grasp of the scenarios. Specifically, when students were encouraged to express their situational and threat awareness, and their proposed responses, it led to a more significant learning transfer than when an instructor merely highlighted right and wrong actions. Put simply, giving officers the chance to introspect and evaluate their actions correlates with heightened satisfaction in training and better retention of skills.

6. Conscious choices post-training

After an intensive training day, turning to alcohol for relaxation can be counterproductive. While it might appear as a benign way to bond with the team, it can swiftly evolve into a detrimental coping strategy, especially when faced with comparable real-life situations. The body and mind require adequate rest to recuperate, and alcohol impedes this recovery process. In essence, alcohol amplifies stress, when officers should prioritize relaxation and recovery post rigorous training. Engaging in group dinners or activities can offer a bonding experience without the adverse effects of alcohol.

In conclusion, incorporating holistic mental health practices into all aspects of police training is essential. Celebrating and prioritizing mental well-being as a fundamental part of training discussions not only enriches the training process but also destigmatizes it. As we prepare officers for real-world scenarios, let’s also empower them with the tools for lasting mental wellness.

About the author

Genevieve Altwer, MA, LMFT, is a psychotherapist located in San Jose, California. With a primary focus on first responders, Genevieve offers specialized therapeutic interventions for individuals affected by PTSD(I), anxiety and depression. She frequently presents at national conferences, emphasizing mental health strategies and wellness for First Responders. Genevieve devoted 14 years of her career as an officer with the San Mateo Police Department, working in Sexual Assault Investigations, Field Training, Critical Incident Response and Hostage Negotiations. She is currently on the Board of Directors for the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.