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Training the police officer through a psychophysiological lens

The Certificate in Police Mental Wellness course teaches “powerful psychophysiological knowledge of the body’s responses to complex trauma associated with law enforcement... These include Critical Incident Stress, PTSD and COVID-19 Traumatic Stress Syndrome (CTSS).”


October 5, 2020
By Michelle Vincent


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Image: College of Certified Psychophysiologists

Imagine you are sitting in your police cruiser and a shot rings out in the night. You freeze, the adrenaline courses through your veins. Just as you are about to experience a full dopamine dump, you recall the breathing techniques you learned in the Certificate in Police Mental Wellness course. As you breathe, the words you once heard from the professor come back to you and so you breathe in a more controlled manner and you remember it is Canada Day; that shot you heard was likely a firecracker.

The Criminal Code, the Highway Traffic Act, defensive tactics and firearms are all training aspects a police officer is expected to have mastered upon graduation from the Ontario Police College (OPC). Further training with a touch on mental health and several schedule blocks with an assigned coach officer is the next step… Although there has been a great improvement on the delivery of mental health tools and educational resources in police training, are we as organizations and leaders approaching officer training/safety as effectively as we could be?

Between mindfulness training, Project Safeguard (an annual psychological assessment for police officers in vulnerable units), peer support and R2MR (the Road to Mental Readiness training), one would think we have a strong physical/psychological connection in the delivery of our training and our services in policing. However, a new leading-edge approach to mental wellness has been brought forth by Dr. Robert Perkins, a professor of applied psychophysiology with the College of Certified Psychophysiologists. (Psychophysiology is research of the physiological and the psyche interaction, their relationship and causal functioning.)


Dr. Robert Perkins.
Photo: College of Certified Psychophysiologists

The number one cause of death in police officers is suicide, out-numbering line of duty deaths two to one, according to Badge of Life Canada. So, we have to ask — what skill sets are we providing our members in terms of suicide prevention? Perkins suggests a program created by the College of Certified Psychophysiologists: The Certificate in Police Mental Wellness course.

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The program trains the police officer in peer support through a psychophysiological lens. It is not treatment; it’s psychoeducation. This course is multifaceted in that it provides members with an in-depth understanding of psychophysiology. It provides an understanding of how the body works, normalizes perception of the body’s reaction to critical incidents and/or trauma, and emphasizes opportunities to work through these reactions.

The Certificate in Police Mental Wellness course teaches “powerful psychophysiological knowledge of the body’s responses to complex trauma associated with law enforcement,” according to Perkins. “These include Critical Incident Stress, PTSD and COVID-19 Traumatic Stress Syndrome (CTSS).”

The cost of this intense and in-depth course, $750 US, is minimal when you think about the life-enriched benefits it may bring to our first responders.

One example of a psychophysiological resource is Cognitive Meditation Technique (CMT). Meditation has been repeatedly shown to be a powerful resource and when approached from a cognitive perspective, it can break down learned fears by association. When explored through the eyes of psychophysiology, meditation supports breathing, providing the brain with appropriate amounts of oxygen, which allows the brain to control emotion regulation. Emotion regulation, when practiced over a longer period of time, could reduce mental health issues, increase resilience and provide a frontline tool belt of resources for our members.

Trauma intervention skills are taught in the Certificate in Police Mental Wellness course to support those in the role of peer support. The goal of this course is to provide practical skills and knowledge to both sworn and civilian members, empowering them to serve themselves, their families and their organizational families in dealing with the mental health issues that are common among first responders.

The successful designation of a Certified Police Wellness Officer may further assist those members in a supportive role in minimizing the effects of mental and medical health issues, Perkins concludes. This could then promote a preventative, responsive strategy. Such a strategy may promote officer-enhancing stress management, a curtailing of illness and the achieving of optimal performance and general well-being. I would also add in: this strategy — especially if it’s delivered organization-wide — could mean a greater likelihood that organizational liability would also be reduced.

If training organizations, such as OPC, offered this course for their cadets as part of their academic requirement, they would be providing proactive, preventative tools for future police officers. If something as simple and cost effective as providing psycho-education can reduce the horrific number of police officer deaths by suicide, we would be remiss in not providing it. Let’s inspire our organizations and training agencies to invest in the Certificate in Police Mental Wellness course today.


Michelle Vincent is a retired police officer and the founder of The Haven, Ontario’s first non-profit, inpatient treatment centre exclusive to first responders. Email her at michelle.vincent@thehaven.cloud.