February 22, 2024

Reducing the impact of scenario training on officer mental health

By Genevieve Altwer, LMFT

The impact of traumatic work-related incidents, including serious 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 focusing on these serious, sometimes career-ending mental health consequences. Numerous police forces now offer specialist mental health support, ranging from counseling and pastoral care programs to psychiatric support and peer interventions, especially in the aftermath of a traumatic event.

Scenario training can lead to unwanted side effects such as sleep disturbances, persistent thoughts, resentment and ineffective coping mechanisms.

Scenario training can lead to unwanted side effects such as sleep disturbances, persistent thoughts, resentment and ineffective coping mechanisms. (Getty Images)

However, an equally important but often overlooked area is the mental health implications arising from scenario training days. These training sessions are common for all officers, and many departments conduct them quarterly.

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

When officers undergo this type of training, they may not always achieve the desired results or may respond more slowly than necessary. As a result, they can be “shot” or attacked by the individual playing the antagonist role. Although officers intellectually understand that the scenario is a simulation, their nervous systems respond as if it were a real threat, triggering the fight-or-flight response. This requires the body to recover and recalibrate. Unfortunately, many officers immediately transition to the next scenarios without sufficient recovery time, only to later resume their regular duties or go home. This constant stress leaves their sympathetic nervous system in a heightened state, without enough time to reset.

Scenario training can lead to unwanted side effects such as sleep disturbances, persistent thoughts, resentment and ineffective coping mechanisms. To counter these effects, departments must design training programs that prioritize and support officer well-being, thereby minimizing potential negative consequences.

After intensive scenario training, it is not uncommon for officers to experience a range of negative symptoms, from sleep disturbances and persistent ruminating thoughts to resentment and maladaptive coping strategies. A proactive approach to training that prioritizes officer well-being can significantly reduce these potential adverse effects.

Strategies to improve officer well-being during scenario training

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

1. Awareness of participants

Has the department recently experienced a disturbing event, such as a violent altercation or shooting? Command personnel should be aware of individuals who may be particularly vulnerable to the stresses of intense training sessions, both emotionally and physically. Training staff should proactively engage in dialogue about participant comfort levels, preparedness, and possible adjustments to the training.

Based on these conversations, decisions can be made about the suitability of training for each officer. In cases where a traumatic event has recently occurred, it is advisable to defer training and ensure that all officers involved have been given sufficient time and resources to address their psychological well-being in relation to that event.

2. Clear communication

Work with your training team to determine the execution of each training scenario with an emphasis on consistency. Make sure trainers provide a supportive and encouraging environment. Additionally, clarify the details of each incident scenario to participants and answer any questions in an unbiased manner. It is essential that participants feel as well rested and informed as the given scenario allows.

3. Balance between surprise and sensitivity

Certainly, the elements of surprise and stress are integral to effective training. It is essential that the protocols for each scenario are carefully planned and mutually agreed upon. Given the inherently unpredictable nature of police work, training must strike a balance between preparing officers for various challenges and avoiding deceptive methods that could only lead to officers being misled or baffled. Such an approach not only reduces the risk of trauma, but also protects against negative mental health consequences and unnecessary panic during field operations.

4. Transitioning from hypervigilance

During intense training sessions, such as searching buildings and stopping high-risk vehicles, officers are ready to respond quickly, putting them in a prolonged fight-or-flight state for the entire training day.

Before these participants can reintegrate into their daily routines, it is crucial that they emerge from this heightened state of alertness. An effective approach is to end the training day with a calming or physical activity that releases positive endorphins. Consider a 20- to 30-minute yoga session or a group workout as a suitable ending activity.

5. Reflective debriefing

Debriefing training in smaller groups promotes reflection and provides a platform for social support. This approach allows officers to connect with colleagues and discuss the successes and challenges of the training. It also provides officers with the space to address and understand any emotions that may have arisen, allowing them to develop healthy coping strategies.

In 2011, FLETC’s Training Innovation Division conducted a study titled “Stress and Decision Making” that focused on scenario training. The study found that a “student-centered feedback” approach, compared to an “instructor-centered feedback” method, increased students’ understanding of the scenarios. Notably, when students were encouraged to express their situational and threat awareness and their proposed responses, this led to more significant learning transfer than when an instructor merely emphasized right and wrong actions. Simply put, giving officers the opportunity to introspect and evaluate their actions is associated with greater training satisfaction and better skill retention.

6. Conscious choices after training

After an intense day of training, consuming alcohol for relaxation can be counterproductive. While it may seem like a benign way to bond with the team, it can quickly turn into a harmful coping strategy, especially when you face similar situations in real life. The body and mind need sufficient rest to recover, and alcohol hinders this recovery process. Essentially, alcohol amplifies stress, while officers must prioritize relaxation and recovery after intense training. Participating in group dinners or activities can provide a bonding experience without the ill effects of alcohol.

In conclusion, it is essential to integrate holistic mental health practices into all aspects of police training. Celebrating and prioritizing mental wellness 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, we must also equip them with the tools for lasting mental well-being.

About the author

Genevieve Altwer, MA, LMFT, is a psychotherapist based in San Jose, California. With a primary focus on first responders, Genevieve provides specialized therapeutic interventions for individuals affected by PTSD(I), anxiety and depression. She regularly presents at national conferences, emphasizing mental health strategies and wellness for first responders. Genevieve dedicated 14 years of her career as an officer with the San Mateo Police Department, handling sexual assault investigations, field training, critical incident response and hostage situations. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.

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