Holding the Line
Do you remember the first time you picked up your firearm? If your experience was anything like mine, it was terrifying. I had never held or discharged a firearm.
April 11, 2017 By Michelle Vincent
As I found myself in the range for the first time, within the stall, ready to fire my first round ever, my glasses fogged up and perspiration was coming from my body so profusely I could barely see the silhouette. I was shaking so badly, trying to remember the directions given to us by our trainers; not to anticipate the first shot and to use a slow, steady trigger-pull. It was quite an experience for someone who now loves to fire-off rounds and do target shooting, unless of course it’s for the annual “requal.”
Training, as cadets, over and over again, working through level one and two stoppages, and emergency and tactical reloads until your fingers blistered from reloading mags, is what brought me to the level of confidence and comfort with my pistol that I now have. We train our cadets in firearms use and safety, which is one of many essential skills that must be mastered in order to successfully graduate from the police college. We also train annually to ensure these skills are still up to speed.
It is so important for us to be mentally and physically trained to be able to survive a dangerous situation. But how important is it to also be able to return to our families in mentally healthy states of mind, or at the very least, return to them with the knowledge and resources to return ourselves to a state of healthy-mindedness?
As with our annual use-of-force requalification, should there not also be an annual healthy-mindedness training and requalification session to help us deal with and cope with challenging incidents both in the past and in the future?
I recently came across an amazing Ted Talk, presented by Dr. Hector Garcia entitled, We Train Soldiers For War. Let’s Train Them To Come Home, Too. He talks about using the same principles used to train soldiers for war, to also train them to return to civilian life especially if they are suffering from PTSD. It is very easy to transfer the concepts from the military setting to our world of policing.
Training with mindfulness is one of the approaches that is trusted and true. Psychological support is another essential piece that has been shown to be very effective in returning police officers to active duty after a serious event. Treatments including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), shaping how we perceive our world, as well as Exposure Therapy (ET), exposure to a feared object or context, but in a safe environment, have been shown to be highly effective in rejuvenating mental health.
Exposure therapy is very interesting in that it uses similar training to the way we are taught in our recruit training. Remembering how we trained for our firearms qualification, step by step from disassembly/reassembly, to stance and grip, to finally discharging our firearm, is similar to our experience/perception of an incident that was particularly difficult.
Identifying and discussing with a mental health professional, our perception of our experiences of a significant event, helps us reintegrate through gradual exposure to the stresses. This is very similar to some of the training we have had since the beginning of our policing careers.
I wonder if we considered mental health training as similar to the training of various other skills required for us to be effective in our policing careers. Should police organizations incorporate this into their annual training regimen? It might take the shape of mindfulness skills-practice similar to firearms and other defensive tactics skills. It might include innovative Ted Talks such as the one I mention above, that demonstrate the successful treatment of individuals who have experienced the debilitating effects of PTSD.
We might then provide hope for those who are coping with PTSD at any level and by making it mandatory annual training, sharpen our understanding and awareness of the very real challenges that confronts so many of us in policing. It might help lessen the stigma that still continues to hamper progress towards better mental health care for everyone in our field.
We train for the active shooter scenarios, now let’s train to cope with and manage the potential consequences on our mental health.
To watch the Ted Talk referenced above, visit: www.ted.com and search for the title of the episode.
Michelle Vincent is a 15-year York Regional Police officer with a Masters Degree in Arts in Counselling Psychology and a background in equine assisted therapy and workplace reintegration and teaching. Her counselling practice is supervised by a psychologist with a specialty in addictions and trauma. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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