College is training law enforcement to provide mental health support to peers
The St. Petersburg College program aims to give officers tools to support colleagues with stressors they face on the job and in their personal lives. The first cohort includes 14 officers from various agencies.
Some law enforcement officers in the greater Tampa Bay region are taking classes to help their peers cope with emotional challenges as part of a new applied mental health certificate program that St. Petersburg College launched this summer.
The program came together after the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association approached the college about a growing need for support services.
Union president Jonathan Vazquez said he learned about the trauma a job can cause during his time in the military. Having been with the St. Petersburg Police Department now for 17 years, he sees law enforcement officers experience similar stress.
“You're going in day in, day out, eight to 10 hours a day, dealing with some people's worst days, and that takes a taxing toll," said Vazquez.
The union noticed that some disciplinary issues, such as officers showing up late to work or behaving rudely, were tied to underlying mental health problems, he added. Some struggled to process negative experiences on the job, while others had a hard time dealing with problems at home, such as divorce or substance abuse.
The goal of the program is to train law enforcement officers to better support their colleagues with these challenges so that the entire community can benefit.
“It's another tool to allow officers dealing with the day-to-day stress of police work to have someone to talk to, a practitioner in police work who can assist them with handling mental health care issues,” St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway said in statement.
How the program works
The three-semester program includes courses on topics like counseling, interview skills and how to deal with substance abuse and family issues. Classes began at St. Petersburg College’s Midtown campus in August.
The first cohort includes 14 officers from various law enforcement agencies including St. Petersburg, Gulfport, Tampa and Tampa International Airport, said Vazquez.
Once they graduate, these officers will serve as mental health liaisons who can offer supportive ears to their colleagues and connect them with more intensive services if needed.
“It's hard to talk to a civilian who may have never seen or heard or dealt with the situations we do, hard to express to them, but it's easier to another officer,” Vazquez said.
Helping officers with their mental health will improve how they engage with the public, said Vazquez.
“You're not going to have an officer that's going to interact with you on their worst day, you're going to have an officer who may be dealing with struggles but who now has an outlet to deal with that, to better serve the community,” he said.
Schooling is paid for with state funding and support from the Pepin Family Foundation.
The program is the first of its kind in the state, said St. Petersburg College’s Human Services program director Latresha Moore.
“It’s amazing what you can do when you stand together,” she said.
Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7