January 23, 2023

Resiliency training can boost the mental health of first responders who often witness trauma

By Katja Ridderbusch 

The first traumatic event Hayden Hurley experienced as a police officer had an easy fix — or so he thought. He was 22, had recently graduated from the police academy and was working for a metro Atlanta law enforcement agency. He responded to the accidental fatal shooting of a small child. It troubled him so much that he avoided the road where it happened for months.

Several years later, after many more gruesome calls and more dead children, he started noticing a change. It was as if he couldn’t feel, he said, and had “just turned cold.”

Then in early 2021, he began therapy. Now 29, Officer Hurley — trim, with a large arm tattoo and a boyish smile — works for the Cobb County School District Police Department. He has turned his struggles into a mission. Together with his wife, Katelyn, a therapist, he delivers trauma training for small and rural law enforcement agencies.

“Badge & Body,” as the couple has dubbed the program, is one of many new initiatives that have formed nationwide to address a crisis that has been brewing for years but has only recently made it on the public radar — the poor state of police officers’ physical and mental health.

Police officers are more likely to die from heart-related illnesses at younger ages and their rates of depression, burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder are significantly higher than among civilians, according to a report by the Ruderman Family Foundation. Some studies suggest 30% of officers experience addiction. Alcoholism is at the top of the list.

In 2022, more than 150 law enforcement officers died by suicide, according to First H.E.L.P., a charity that advocates for first responders. That is more than the number killed in the line of duty last year.

An exodus of police across the country has created a vicious cycle of understaffed departments and overworked and exhausted officers. The Atlanta Police Department, for example, is 475 officers short of its authorized strength of just over 2,000 — about 24%, according to the most recent data.

Yet there are few evidence-based strategies, and solutions are as numerous and decentralized as U.S. law enforcement. Many larger metro Atlanta agencies, like the Cobb County Police Department, with an authorized strength of about 700 officers, have contracted with psychologists and chaplains. They also have officers who receive specialized mental health training and are legally and ethically bound to keep conversations confidential.

Cobb’s department offers voluntary stress debriefings after critical incidents, such as officer-involved shootings or mass casualty events. Capt. Christopher Michael, 50, a recently retired Cobb police peer support commander wants these meetings to become mandatory. Doing so would help normalize discussions about mental health and “break the stigma and the angst,” he said.

Angst is felt by officers who fear disclosing their emotional struggles could end their careers. And the stigma, even though slowly fading among younger officers, is still deeply ingrained in law enforcement, where showing vulnerability is seen as a sign of weakness.

“This culture of ‘suck it up, harden up, move on’ is toxic,” Katelyn Hurley, 27, said as she and her husband prepared in their Villa Rica home for the next Badge & Body class.

In the seminars, the couple talks about the effects of chronic stress and cumulative trauma. Among the signs and symptoms are trouble sleeping; sudden changes in eating and drinking habits; hypervigilance, sometimes to the point of paranoia; social isolation; and constant anger, said Katelyn, who works for Woodstock-based Above and Beyond Counseling Services.

First responders are notoriously resistant to opening up to anyone outside their circle. That’s why it’s crucial to find culturally competent counselors, Katelyn said.

Her husband Hayden uses blunt police talk to connect with reticent officers.

“If a guy says he’s fine, and he’s on his third marriage and drinks a handle of vodka each night, I tell him, ‘No, dude, you’re not fine,’” he said.

He also tells them seeking help is no different than calling for backup on the streets.

Even small departments with modest budgets can help improve mental health among first responders, said Sgt. Brian Vaughan, 36, training coordinator for the Dallas Police Department in Paulding County, a 30-officer agency.

“You can’t just wave a wand, throw money around and fix the problem. You have to create an atmosphere where people trust you,” he said.

Vaughan added that investing time and energy eventually pays off with less sick time, overtime and turnover.

The Marietta Police Department, with 140 officers, is setting up its own wellness room — or “zen den” as some officers call it. Modeled after similar spaces at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital, it is meant to help officers decompress and refocus after stressful events, such as fatal wrecks, and even after they have finished routine shifts, which can spin from uneventful into violent.

The room features a massage chair, dimmable lights, aromatherapy and a sound system that plays low-frequency beats meant to reduce stress and anxiety. Set to open in February, it will provide a “safe space for officers to come down, literally, from all that the stress does to our bodies, the adrenaline spikes, the cortisol release,” said Officer Jonnie Moeller-Reed, 53, who has worked in Marietta’s detective and uniform patrol units and who started her department’s peer support program.

Mental health education must begin at the police academy, said Michael, the retired Cobb police captain.

“Traditionally, we teach recruits how to shoot, drive and defend themselves, but we don’t teach them how to survive emotionally,” he said.

The Cobb County Public Safety Police Academy has added crisis intervention training for recruits. Though the course is primarily designed to help officers interact with people in mental health crises, it also helps them recognize signs of their own emotional distress. Recruits also take a self-care class and learn what to expect when they encounter violent and disturbing scenes.

But even the best academy classes go only so far, said Vaughan, the Dallas police training coordinator. It’s not until recruits hit the streets that life as an officer becomes real — the constant exposure to the unknown, the stress and the trauma.

“How do you prepare to have a child die in your arms?” he said, wearily shrugging his shoulders. “How do you prepare to see a colleague get killed right next to you? How do you prepare to see the worst in people come out? You don’t.”

Vaughan, a former firefighter and EMT and a 15-year police veteran, has lived through many traumatic incidents and experienced bouts of burnout and severe stress. He learned to cope “mostly by trial and error” but would have benefited from deeper training, he said.

That’s why he insists resiliency training must be continuous throughout officers’ careers and embedded in every aspect of policing.

“It’s about developing a habit of resiliency,” he said, “like building mental muscle memory.”

Vaughan has hired external mental health specialists, including Katelyn and Hayden Hurley, to provide a fresh perspective. He sends officers to a resiliency class offered by the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, the state’s accreditation agency for police. He said it’s critical to involve relatives because for many officers “their family is their support system.”

Vaughan’s agency has also partnered with a local gym for a Brazilian jiu-jitsu program. Besides enhancing physical fitness, Vaughan said, it helps officers clear their minds and build confidence.

There are also practical aspects of resiliency. New Dallas officers are required to meet with a retirement and financial planner. Vaughan said he’s seen too many 20-year-old rookie officers blow money on cars, motorcycles or houses and become trapped in a toxic cycle of working part-time jobs and extra shifts to pay the bills.

“And that again can lead to stress, exhaustion and burnout,” he said.

Vaughan said keeping a balance is key — and often, a matter of safety. He tells young officers that if they’re in the middle of a critical incident, “you can’t cry and walk away.”

“Finish the job,” he said, “But then check in on yourself, and check in on one another.”

A little over a year into therapy, Hayden Hurley said he feels calmer and has become better at recognizing the telltale signs of mental health struggles in himself and his peers. During the trauma classes he teaches, he has noticed tiny cracks in the hardened veneer of fellow officers.

“Chances are that many officers are feeling the same,” he said. “They just don’t want to be the first to come out and say it.”

And that’s why he’s confident that more discussions about the stress and trauma of policing, mental health and resiliency will change the culture of law enforcement, one officer at a time.

© AJC / Katja Ridderbusch