Seven and a half hours of boredom, plus 30 minutes of terror.
That’s how Dr. Michael Spierer, a Madison-based psychologist, describes the typical police officer’s shift. Eight hours of paperwork and petty crime, with the knowledge that a high-pressure and dangerous turn of events may be just around the corner. Chronic stress is inherent to the job, he says.
In an effort to help officers cope, the Wisconsin Center for Healthy Minds and the Madison Police Department have teamed up for a pilot study to research the effects of mindfulness practices, including yoga and meditation, on officers’ mental health.
While this type of research is relatively new, some officers practice mindfulness techniques in their personal lives, and have found it’s made them better at their jobs. Madison Detective Samantha Kellogg started practicing yoga and meditation about 10 years ago, and she’s excited to see mindfulness potentially take on a bigger role for officers.
“The transformation I’ve seen in myself in dealing with day-to-day stress has made a remarkable difference,” she says. “In any given situation, I can go to my breath, and it can affect my ability to think and my ability to control the trauma response that so many officers and first responders fear, from the heart rate, to the adrenaline jump, to just processing it. There are so many things that affect you with that ongoing build of day-to-day stress, this is just a positive tool to deal with it.”
According to Capt. Kristen Roman, the department’s point person for the study, nine out of 10 officers will experience a traumatic event of some kind in their first years on the job. She’s hopeful that the department could eventually teach these mindfulness strategies at the police academy, so that new recruits can begin their careers with these skills already under their belts.
Roman says that while there’s been plenty of research on mindfulness training and stress reduction in other arenas, it’s never been studied in-depth for policing.
“It’s one of the first studies of its kind,” Roman says. “Cultivating greater awareness through meditation practices, gentle yoga, thoughts — it’s a being present in the moment kind of thing. What our study will involve is tailoring all of that to deliver it to police officers.”
The study’s been a year in the making, says Dan Grupe, an assistant scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Healthy Minds. He and his team spent the last year working with Roman to put together a set of goals that would best address officers’ needs. They discovered that it isn’t just the obvious risk of trauma that burdens police, but also the day-to-day administrative work that contributes to a pattern of chronic stress.
“You’ve got a large bureaucratic organization where there isn’t a lot of control over the work that they do...and there’s this cumulative world of stressors that builds up around it,” says Grupe. “They only have room for so much programming, and a lot of the programs they have in place to address officer well-being are more responsive. They respond to traumatic events that happen, but there aren’t a lot of programs that are more preventative, that can kind of build up a coping system in anticipation of the stressors that are going to take place.”
The center will conduct an eight-week training session on what they call “mindfulness-based resiliency training,” meant to control stress. The curriculum, which will teach breath and body scan exercises, gentle yoga and meditation, is based on a similar study from a few years ago with Oregon’s Hillsboro Police Department. The center was not involved in that study.
Chad McGehee, an outreach specialist at the center, says that they’ll also teach the cognitive processes going on behind each exercise, in hopes of addressing any skepticism from officers.
The short-term goal is just establishing feasibility, Grupe says. The pilot study, which is tentatively slated to begin in November, will act as a trial period, to test out what a more in-depth exploration would call for. He anticipates it would take years, and a lot more money, to research the mindfulness effects as deeply as he’d like to.
Regardless, the study represents a groundbreaking move for policing, says McGehee, and enthusiasm has been high on both ends.
“It’s pretty cutting edge what we’re offering here...and the level of collaboration that we’re having with MPD has been great,” he says. “It’s been a mutual process from the beginning and continues to be so. It’ll allow us to have more success, and be of a greater benefit to the officers.”