Three essential elements for mental wellness support

by Alison Crotteau

The phone vibrated on the kitchen counter. Dr. Heather Rose-Carlson looked at the caller ID, took a deep breath and answered.

“Hi, Doc,” the caller said. “You got a minute? We are just headed to a call and it could be a bad one — are you available?”

Absolutely. Critical incidents will always happen, but peer support teams like Rose-Carlson’s can help with proactive, real-time and follow-up support.

Talking about mental health may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, yet today it is more critical than ever. With the increasingly tense climate of racial unrest ricocheting through the country and wavering support for law enforcement, officers need to spend even more time taking care of themselves and supporting one another.

That does not mean sitting around singing “Kumbaya” — not by a long shot. Rose-Carlson, referred to as Dr. Heather by clients, is the owner of Reinforcement Consulting. She and her team have taken mental wellness to a new and more approachable level with a peer support model that sets departments up for success.

As a board-certified clinical psychologist, Rose-Carlson has dedicated her career to promoting personal and professional resilience in those with high-stress careers. As the daughter of a retired police officer, she knows and understands that families are an essential component of the process. Mental wellness, after all, is not a one-person job. It takes a strong network of support to deal with trauma in a healthy way and work through critical incidents effectively.

Bottom line: Officers do not have to do this on their own.

Rose-Carlson’s goal is to help first responders live longer, happier, healthier lives. She put her “Lake Superior Model” — a mix of expert consulting, training and educational resources — to the test with the Duluth Police Department (DPD) in northern Minnesota. The results have been game-changing.

Strengthening Duluth’s peer support team

Long before George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis shook the nation, DPD Chief of Police Mike Tusken wanted to take action to prioritize his officers’ health and wellness. After decades on the force, Tusken has a deep understanding of the stress and demands of the job. It takes a mental toll that, if left unchecked, can have serious negative impacts on an officer’s life and ability to perform their job.

Staying on top of mental wellness requires an ongoing practice, and it is essential to keep learning, trying and practicing techniques.

The realities are staggering. More police officers die by suicide than in the line of duty, and one in four officers have considered suicide. Officers are more likely to struggle with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), burnout and anxiety than the general population because of the high mental, physical and emotional demands of a career in law enforcement.

To prioritize mental health and wellness within the DPD, Tusken brought Rose-Carlson on as clinical director. She began her work by getting to know each officer in the department. At the same time, she deployed her evidence-based peer support model, guiding the team through every step of the process.

Real-world peer support training

The Lake Superior Model includes nine training courses designed to help first responders recognize symptoms of stress and trauma in themselves and their teams, and provides tools and resources for processing what’s going through their minds effectively, realistically and in a healthy way.

Each course features real officers demonstrating real defusings, debriefings and one-on-one consults as a real team. This non-textbook approach is more effective for officer training because it is relatable. When officers can connect scenarios demonstrated in training to their own experiences, and when they see different ways of approaching and resolving issues, the real growth begins.

DPD embraces the Lake Superior Model

The first year of the project advanced the DPD’s peer support team by building on successes and addressing existing gaps. In the program’s second year, the DPD welcomed retired officers to the peer support team, gaining valuable insights from decades of experience. Rose-Carlson also evolved the DPD’s training curriculum to include a clinical base and utilized a proven peer support team to teach the skills and tools. Today, the DPD is setting the standard for improved police officer mental health and wellness and is moving into the digital age with a peer support management app pilot project. The department is stronger because it has an internal team dedicated to the welfare of each and every officer.

As her method gained traction and recognition, Rose-Carlson created recordings of each of the nine training courses and made them available online. Now any first responder looking for peer support training or better ways to handle the stress of the job can access POST-certified courses from anywhere in the world.

Three essential elements of a strong peer support team

  1. Ongoing training and education: It’s not an exaggeration to say the role of first responders changed dramatically almost overnight. It’s not an exaggeration to say that police officers have some of the toughest and most mentally taxing jobs in the world today. Mental health is a lot like a muscle: It needs to be exercised to stay strong. Staying on top of mental wellness requires an ongoing practice, and it is essential that frontline workers keep learning, trying and practicing techniques that work on an individual level. The Lake Superior Model is available online and accessible from just about any device. Officers can deepen their awareness and training while earning required education credits whenever and wherever it’s most convenient.
  2. Effective management: Building an internal peer support team is a proven way to improve a department’s overall mental wellness, but long-term management is still being defined. Some agencies have the capacity to create full wellness departments with multiple staff members dedicated to oversight and management. Others will be lucky to have one employee tackle peer support management as an added duty to an already long list of responsibilities. The Lake Superior Model also includes access to First Response Mental Health’s PeerConnect app. PeerConnect is a proactive peer support and wellness app that provides instant and direct access to peer support teams — so officers and their families can access expert help whenever they need it. PeerConnect simplifies and strengthens peer support programs instantly. The program addresses concerns about privacy, trust, and security of data for frontline officers while still providing administrators with the measurable information they need to make informed programming decisions.
  3. Solid confidentiality: One of the biggest barriers to seeking support is fear. Could asking for help inadvertently translate to being unfit for duty? Feeling strongly that officers should not face undue repercussions, Rose-Carlson created an encrypted HIPAA-compliant database so that any peer support contact or wellness therapy visit could not be traced to any officer by anyone within the department, including supervisors, while still allowing for sufficient data analysis. On a larger scale, she has been pursuing legislation to make this confidentiality a federal law. By eliminating barriers and ensuring confidentiality, the Lake Superior Model makes it easier for officers to prioritize their mental wellness so they can continue doing what they’re called to do: protect and serve.

Dr. Heather Rose-Carlson, PsyD, LP, is a board-certified clinical psychologist. She has worked with military, first responders and critical incidents/trauma for over 20 years and has run her own private practice since 2006. She currently serves as the clinical director of the Duluth Police Department peer support program and the consulting director for the Superior Police Department peer support. She and her therapy dog, Tippen, also serve their community by volunteering with the Arrowhead Critical Incident Stress Management Team, providing services to first responders following critical incidents for northern Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Alison Crotteau is a freelance writer with a passion for telling the stories of organizations that are making an impact in their communities.

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