June 27 is National Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness day and with a unique approach to simulation training, VirTra’s immersive scenarios have now been put to the test by a Psychologist looking to improve the lives of those officers who have served on the force and were afflicted by the many side effects that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) creates. Read below for the full story featured in this month’s ILEETA Journal:
Recent studies confirm what most law enforcement professionals already know: police and corrections officers are suffering from PTSD at rates at least as high as combat veterans. But while billions of dollars and decades of research have gone into helping vets reintegrate into civilian society, many officers endure their pain behind a blue wall of silence, unwilling to seek help or undergo therapy to move past the traumas that are interfering with their personal and professional lives. Now, the use of force simulation technology solution that many agencies already use for officer training may offer hope in rebuilding the confidence of officers who are suffering the effects of PTSD.
Dealing with CopShock using simulators
When a police officer is involved in a shooting incident, the aftermath might include recovery from physical injuries, departmental investigations, media attention, and administrative processes. However, there are other things going on under the surface – self-doubt, depression, increased use of alcohol, anti-social feelings, uncontrollable emotions – that can make the ordinary stresses of police work almost unbearable in the wake of a trauma. These are the text-book symptoms of a condition referred to over the years as “shell shock,” “combat fatigue,” “CopShock,” or the current clinical designation, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Observed in combat veterans and others victimized by severe violence, it can destroy personal relationships, lead to substance abuse issues, and cause erratic behavior on the job. Research and clinical practice have led to the development of effective, evidence-based treatments that can help people who have PTSD develop skills to cope with feelings triggered by reminders of the trauma. These involve patients re-imagining their trauma in increasingly vivid details, acknowledging their stress and discomfort, and finally proving to themselves they can function normally in familiar situations.
It takes a cop to treat a cop
Dr. Lamaurice Gardner is one of the leading practitioners in the emerging field of police PTSD treatment. He witnessed all the signs of the PTSD epidemic first hand when he began his practice as a clinical psychologist 30 years ago working with military veterans. But when he tried getting law enforcement officers to open up about their experiences, he was often told, “Only cops understand cops.” That’s when Dr. Gardner took an unusual step; he enrolled in a police reserve academy and became a law enforcement officer. He currently serves on the force of Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, adjacent to Detroit, Michigan. When patients come to him for treatment, they see a fellow officer with a badge and a first-hand understanding of police culture. That trust helps him give traumatized officers the help they need to get their lives and careers back on track.
Helping officers put trauma in the past
Dr. Gardner says situations police encounter every day can trigger PTSD in anyone: it’s a normal human reaction to surviving a life-or-death encounter, only made worse by the additional pressures of investigation, media scrutiny, second-guessing, and the financial strain of losing overtime and court pay during an internal review. He employs a multi-step process to get officers facing these situations back on their feet. This process is called PET (Prolonged exposure therapy). The first step is “Imaginal Therapy,” where the patient is encouraged to visualize and verbally recount the traumatic experience several times in each session, offering a self-assessment of how much emotional stress they are under. With enough verbal repetitions, anxiety eventually recedes into a manageable territory, and the patient gains emotional distance from the traumatic events. The next step is to have the officer face the traumatic memories in the real-life situations associated with them, from drawing and firing their weapon to the routines of wearing the uniform, riding on patrol, and interacting with other people in their professional role. As in Imaginal Therapy, these “In Vivo” sessions can start with very high levels of discomfort and stress. Through repetition, patients learn to deal with stressors in their environment without losing control.
Immersion as the final step
Dr. Gardner found a powerful tool to help take In Vivo therapy to the next level: VirTra’s simulator that many departments now use for officer training and certification. Because the systems offer complete immersion in a wide range of real-world scenarios and include the ability to customize backgrounds using panoramic photos of actual places, they allow officers to experience the kind of pressures they would see on the job, but without the life-or-death consequences. He uses the simulator to evaluate and reinforce their reactions in increasingly high-stress, high-stakes scenarios, starting with non-violent interactions, moving to confrontations involving weapons, and finally moving to ambiguous scenarios where the officer has to decide in the moment whether or not to use deadly force. The goal, says Dr. Gardner, is to get their anxiety down, normalize their reactions, to give them comfort and confidence. “One of the biggest symptoms we see is hesitation liability, where officers are reluctant to assert themselves,” says Dr. Gardner.
In moments of crisis, the inability to act decisively can be dangerous or deadly. The session with the simulator takes about 60-90 minutes. “Most people get their anxiety levels down and are ready to return to work,” he says. “Officers say the simulator was crucial to their reintroductions. We need to broaden use beyond just training to reintegration.” The use of simulation for PET is not a new concept. The US ARMY, along with the University of California Institute for Creative Technologies, conducted similar research in 2012 with another less immersive systems with good results. Dr. Gardner says he used the simulator to help hundreds of law enforcement professional resume their lives and careers. “I serve and protect those who serve and protect. Re-integration is my first purpose.”
To learn more about how your agency can benefit from using VirTra simulation training to improve the mental health of your officers, click here to contact our team.
Brennan, J. (2012) Bravemind: Using Virtual Reality to Treat PTSD. The National Psychologist.
Public Affairs, and UC Berkeley. “Correctional Officers at High Risk for Depression, PTSD, Suicide, Survey Finds.” Berkeley News, 23 Aug. 2018, news.berkeley.edu/2018/08/23/california-correctional-officers-at-high-risk-for-depression-ptsd-and-suicide-new-survey-finds/.