Command Issue December 2019

By Rob Schmidtke

WHAT IS RESILIENCY? To many law enforcement officers, particularly those of us in administrative positions, we often associate resiliency with only “mental health.” In actuality, mental health is a small piece of the larger concept of resiliency and a well-developed departmental program. Unfortunately, by associating the concept of resiliency with mental health only, our profession has created a negative internal culture in which officers are hesitant to seek help, and departments tend to ignore officer issues until they become serious. I do not believe these are intentional outcomes, but merely byproducts of a lack of knowledge and training.

Most officers believe law enforcement is a noble profession and law enforcement members are a team. I believe this is mostly true. Officers will step up to help others develop cases and in tough moments such as physical illness or injury, financial hardships, officer deaths, etc. However, when it comes to deeper issues such as mental health or substance abuse, the culture of law enforcement is actually guarded and very much an individual matter. When we look below the surface, we find that most officers live in a world of fear and mistrust -- fear of vulnerability and mistrust of those who may help.

Officers spend a career developing a protective shell and high level of distrust as necessary tools for protection. These tools or barriers

help officers survive dangerous encounters and shield them from the difficult calls and negative situations. Protective tools and barriers are good, but only to an extent. Over time these tools begin to skew an officer’s view of reality, and all people become suspects and liars. Officers continue to develop these protective barriers throughout their careers, causing many to become angry and isolated, fearful of lowering their guard (physically and mentally). Officers often develop a negative view of the world, which eventually will affect both work and home life. Officers become more rigid in their thinking, rather than allowing for the development of a mental flexibility that will help support them and allow for personal growth. Without the proper coping mechanisms, it becomes difficult to maintain the shell and to deal with the negative aspects of the job. It is at this point officers are most susceptible to mental crisis.

The sad reality is the very tools officers develop to keep them from harm can be harmful in other circumstances. The protective shell and mental rigidity do not allow for the appearance of vulnerability, even to other officers. In addition, many officers are concerned with the stigma attached to “mental illness” or being thought of as weak if they show vulnerability. This cultural mindset, coupled with negative past and present life experiences and job-related experiences,

contribute to the development of mental illness, burnout, poor relationships, toxic employees, substance abuse, poor physical health, and a high suicide rate among law enforcement officers. To better aid our officers and to avoid these negative outcomes, we in law enforcement must change our professional culture and provide the tools for officers to survive and thrive in a law enforcement career.

It is through resiliency training that officers learn skills to cope with and even grow from negative life and work experiences.

A well-developed departmental program will have three components:

Resiliency training,
A peer support program, and
Professional mental health resources.

Though the barriers preventing officers from seeking help are considerable, they can be overcome. A well-developed program with a primary focus on resiliency will offer the best protection and provide officers with the tools to address issues as they arise, while developing a culture in which it is okay to seek help. The concept of a total departmental program is too broad to discuss in this forum, so for the purposes of this article I will focus on the concept and development of resiliency.

So, what is resiliency? In 2011 the Rand Corporation published a study on resiliency for the U.S. Military, which was later adapted for use in the civilian sector relating to first responders. The Rand Corporation defines resiliency as the ability to withstand, recover, and/or grow in the face of stressors and changing demands. More simply put, we can learn from our life experiences, both good and bad, to become better people and better officers. Renowned author, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl summed up resiliency best, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Resilience is preventative in nature and arguably the most important aspect of a larger program. As the old saying goes and any doctor will tout, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It is through resiliency training that we develop flexibility rather than the rigidity we in law enforcement are so familiar. Flexibility allows for movement and adaptability, helping to make us stronger and better able to handle the negative experiences life can present. A focus on resiliency training and on work/life balance will prevent or lessen the

likelihood of officers getting to the point of crisis and for the need to seek professional mental health treatment or medical treatment for preventable conditions such as high blood pressure, poor sleep, obesity, among others.

Some people are naturally more resilient; however, most if not all people will feel negative mental and physical stressors to some extent. It is the buildup of experiences, the development of our protective shell, and because stressors are not addressed early that problems may become serious. That being said, resiliency skills can be learned. To get the most benefit, officers should be taught resiliency skills early in their career and be encouraged to practice the skills throughout, to retirement and beyond.

How can we become more resilient? Resiliency is developed through change of mindset, development of healthy habits, and development of coping mechanisms. The concept of resiliency can be divided into Four Tenets: Mental, physical, social, and spiritual. These are taught in the FBINA training program on resiliency.

  • Mental: The ability to effectively cope with unique mental stressors and challenges.
  • Physical: The ability to adopt and sustain healthy behaviors needed to enhance health and well-being.
  • Social: The ability to engage in healthy social networks that promote overall well-being and optimal performance.
  • Spiritual: The ability to strengthen a set of beliefs, principles, or values that sustain an individual’s sense of well-being and purpose. The spiritual tenet does not have to be of a religious nature, but more of a belief in something larger than one’s self.

To develop officer resiliency, we must encourage officers to seek opportunities to increase knowledge and skills in each of the Four Tenets, as they are a foundation on which to build. Weakness in one area will cause the overall structure to weaken, and an officer to be more susceptible to negative influences.

It is a common misconception that officer stress is primarily caused by work events. To an extent this is true; however, work experiences are only one of many factors that contribute to stress and burnout. In reality, the stress that officers feel is caused by a combination of factors that include work experiences and past and present life experiences. Our overall life experiences (nature and number) will dictate how we respond to negative events, making us more or less resilient. Officers who are less equipped to handle life stressors due to poor coping skills and negative responses to past life events will suffer more severely, especially when we factor in the current internal cultural philosophy of mistrust, negative stigma, and poor officer support in the area of mental health. This environment creates a negative cycle in which officers, unable to positively handle life stressors or to adjust, do not address mental health issues early if at all. Officers will eventually become resentful, angry, and at higher risk for crisis.

In the training setting and while working in a peer support role, officers often talk about the negative environment and limitations to seeking help. In addition, officers talk about the stressors in our profession. Surprisingly, there is some discussion regarding work experiences; however, the primary focus is usually on past and present life experiences outside of law enforcement (childhood experiences, family issues, financial issues, among others). Along with life experiences and stressors, officers talk about the lack of trust for administration, lack of knowledge regarding what resources are available and mistrust of those resources, fear of the unknown, loss of control, fear of being seen as weak, fear of being labeled, fear of negative work impact, and the desire for a more open professional culture. There is a need and desire to “open up” in the larger cultural perspective, but fear prevents this desire from becoming reality.

It is for these reasons the concept of resiliency is so important. If we teach officers to better address stress, be mindful of their physical health, develop a positive mindset, develop positive social relationships, find meaning in life, and that it is okay to display vulnerability (confide in others or to seek help), agencies will have more content and healthy employees with the added benefit of less sick time abuse, reduced complaints, less substance abuse, and more motivated officers. The long-term benefit of having healthier and happier employees is better employee recruitment and retention, which currently any department head will tell you is becoming more difficult.


Resiliency can grow and become common place, but we must first understand resiliency is not just “mental health.” Resiliency is a piece of a larger picture that includes resiliency training, peer support, and a professional resource base. The foundation of resiliency is based on four tenets: Mental, physical, social, and spiritual. Weakness in any of the four areas will weaken the overall structure. Officers must be encouraged to develop and practice resiliency skills, no differently than developing and maintaining firearms skills or law knowledge. Resiliency is preventative in nature and encourages flexibility, a key component for adapting to new situations and crisis. Teaching and encouraging officer resiliency will provide many benefits, such as prevention of burnout, increase officer retention, and development of healthy officers (mentally and physically). However, none of this is possible without a shift in our cultural philosophy and how we view overall officer wellness. It is important that we as officers, and particularly we as administrators, focus on creation of a more open and receptive environment. Only then may we begin to teach and develop true officer resiliency.