Battling officer stress through building resiliency
Georgia POST’s law enforcement resiliency program is designed to build mental, physical, social, spiritual and financial health
By Katja Ridderbusch
Tim Melton has seen it many times: police officers pour into the classroom and sit down at the U-shaped table, their faces filled with apprehension, skepticism, or downright scorn.
“Some think it’s just another class on mental health,” said Melton, manager of the resiliency program at Georgia POST, the state’s credentialing agency. Others fear it’s a retreat where they sit in a circle on pillows, hold hands and sing Kumbaya.
But that’s a big misconception. On Day One, a few hours into the class, participants typically become cautiously curious, but are still quiet, said Melton, a 34-year law enforcement veteran. On Day Two, they are more relaxed and talkative. And on Day Three, “they’re all in.”
Resiliency program gaining traction
Four years after the rollout – with an interruption by the COVID pandemic – the Georgia Resiliency Program, backed by the POST council and funded by a state grant, is gaining traction. More than 17,000 public safety personnel have been trained – mostly police, but also correctional officers and dispatchers. There are three class levels: user, train- the-trainer and master instructor.
The 24-hour course was designed by the U.S. Air Force and later adapted by the FBI National Academy. It is taught, in variations, all over the U.S., in states like Nevada, New York, Texas and Iowa. But Georgia and New Jersey are the only states with statewide initiatives to implement the comprehensive and law enforcement specific resiliency program, according to Georgia POST. In New Jersey, unlike Georgia, the class is mandated.
Historically, law enforcement has been reactive to mental health challenges, said Sherri Martin, National Director of Wellness Services at the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), who has a license in professional counseling. “Now we’re seeing resiliency training pop up around the country to get in front of the problem.”
Police officers are more likely to suffer from cardiac death at a much younger age than the general public. Many struggle with insomnia, anxiety, depression and burnout. Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder are five times as high in police officers as in the civilian population. Some studies estimate that 30% of officers have a substance abuse problem.
In 2022, 159 law enforcement officers died by suicide, according to Blue H.E.L.P. — more than the number killed in the line of duty.
But getting cops to buy into the concept of resiliency is a hard nut to crack, said Beth Shafer, who is a curriculum specialist for the Resiliency Program at Georgia POST and has been in law enforcement for 40 years.
“Resiliency is the first thing law enforcement officers need,” she added. “And probably the last thing they admit they need.”
Taking a hands-on and holistic approach
The Georgia Resiliency Program goes well beyond trauma training. The course takes a hands-on and holistic approach. It addresses the mental, physical, social, spiritual and financial aspects of resiliency and provides applicable scientific information and practical tools that are, as instructors put it, “cop specific.”
While most law enforcement training is geared toward improving the interaction between officers and the public, “this program is meant for the individual officer as a person,” said Shafer. It is designed to help officers take care of themselves. The agency benefits by getting healthier and, ultimately, better-performing employees, she said.
In the Georgia resiliency class, students leave their rank, uniforms and badges at the door. For three days, they are people first and cops second. The class starts with introductions and sharing of personal and professional hardships. Stories range from youth trauma to broken marriages to officer-involved shootings and child fatalities. Officers also talk about organizational stressors, like staff shortages.
Trust is key for the class, said J.C. “Buddy” Johnson, a retired Georgia State Patrol captain and lead facilitator and consultant to the Georgia Resiliency Program. Participants sign a confidentiality form. “This is a safe space where everyone should feel comfortable showing vulnerability,” he added. Typically, the instructors go first with their story. “If we don’t show vulnerability, no one else will,” he said.
Through brief lectures and interactive exercises, the class teaches students how to recognize stress and understand what it does to the body and the brain. They learn to manage and control their stressors.
This becomes critical for officers in the 10-to-20-year career range, said Johnson. “That’s when they become cynical, that’s when the air gets tight, and that’s when they’re making mistakes” − because the stress takes over and wreaks havoc.
Course lessons focus on strategies to keep stress at bay − capitalizing on character strengths, improving communication skills, and setting career and personal goals. Johnson said officers should nurture interests and personal relationships outside of law enforcement. The badge “is what you do. It’s not who you are,” he added.
Johnson wants that message to resonate particularly with officers nearing retirement. “As much as you may love your job – when you leave it one day, that job is not going to love you back,” he said.
The class also talks about spiritual – not necessarily religious – resiliency, the importance of having a set of core principles, beliefs and values in place, and a support network of trusted people to lean on. Physical resiliency and nutrition are also addressed, and instructors introduce students to basic mindfulness, breathing and relaxation exercises.
Another key lesson is about financial resiliency. Money problems are often a major source of stress among police officers. They can deepen burnout and strain relationships, especially when officers get trapped in the toxic cycle of working part-time jobs and extra shifts to pay the bills. The class gives practical tips on financial and retirement planning, such as tracking expenses, eliminating debt, building an emergency fund, and creating a will.
Resiliency, at its core, “is being able to anticipate things,” said FOP wellness director Martin. It’s a skill that police officers are trained for – anticipating threats and developing a response plan.
Making resiliency a culture
Students in the Georgia classes range from brand-new cadets to seasoned leaders. One of them was Chief Lonnie Holder of the Reynolds Police Department in middle Georgia, an agency with eight sworn staff.
The three-day course is a substantial commitment for a tiny agency, but it was more than worth it, said Holder. The class opened his eyes to the stress and struggles of his officers, he added. With the daily grind of the job, “I had forgotten my ‘why,’” he said, as a person and a leader. “Now I feel I’ve got it back.”
Holder recalled an officer who contemplated suicide several years ago. He wondered if he may have prevented the officer from getting to such a dark place had he known what he now knows.
Holder plans to sign up each of his officers for the resiliency class. “I will absolutely make sure they’re all going,” he said.
Martin, of the FOP, is hopeful the recent attention to officers’ physical and mental health is here to stay. With many departments across the country understaffed, she said, even law enforcement leaders skeptical of the wellness trend must recognize these programs “as a great recruitment and retention tool.”
Having a resiliency program funded and pushed by the state – as is the case in Georgia – helps normalize the discussion about police officers and mental health, Martin added. It also brings the concept of resiliency to small and rural departments that otherwise wouldn’t have the resources to get their officers trained.
The stigma of mental health still creates hurdles, admits Johnson, who’s taught over 200 classes across the country. But interest among agencies is steadily increasing. “We sometimes call the resiliency class the Chick-fil-A course,” he said, using a metaphor cops can relate to. “You build it, and eventually they will all come.”
Going forward, Melton, the Georgia Resiliency Program manager, would like to add a clinician and a chaplain as course instructors. He also wants to involve officers’ spouses, partners and older children in portions of the class.
And eventually, he wants all 55,000 public safety personnel in Georgia to go through the training.
“Our goal is to make resiliency a culture in law enforcement, not just a class that you take, and it’s done,” he said. “This course doesn’t have an expiration date.”
About the author
Katja Ridderbusch is an Atlanta-based journalist who reports about health care and law enforcement. Her work has appeared in U.S. News & World Report, Time, Kaiser Health News, NPR and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.