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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

145 N Street, N.E.
Washington, DC 20530

September 2023 | Volume 16 | Issue 9

Too many law enforcement professionals struggle under the weight of personal and professional stressors. A distressing number suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can often lead them to turn to self-medication with drugs and alcohol, or even to suicide. Though a growing variety of mental health programs are available to law enforcement agencies, many officers fail to take advantage of them, while those who do often continue to struggle with abiding feelings of sadness, even hopelessness, despite mental health intervention.

A new and innovative program focused on posttraumatic growth has proven effective for law enforcement agencies and other first responders in 14 states. Called Struggle Well (SW), it has been successful in helping officers not only rebound from disturbing situations but also come back better and happier. Moreover, it offers prevention as well as intervention, helping officers gain the capacity to weather storms before they arise by providing skills and strategies to build strength and hope.

An Innovative Growth-Based Program

Developed by the Boulder Crest Foundation, a nonprofit organization established in 2013 to help military veterans and their families struggling with depression and other problems, the Struggle Well Initiative was created to help first responders.

Realizing that traditional mental health interventions do not always provide enduring benefits, and that most first responders never seek help or drop out before completing treatment if they do, Boulder Crest CEO Josh Goldberg and chairman Ken Falke searched for a more effective approach.

Said Goldberg, “We realized that the barriers to recovery were the cultures around mental health. ‘Suck it up’ was the prevailing answer to traumatic experiences. We also saw that, though medication and talk therapy could reduce symptoms, they didn’t always lead to long term mental health, much less growth. Something new was needed.”

In search of a method that could transform institutional culture and provide lifelong benefits, they teamed up with Richard G. Tedeschi, a psychologist, researcher, and professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who cofounded the science of posttraumatic growth in 1995.

Based on the precepts of posttraumatic growth, they developed Struggle Well, a training program that enables participants to develop a plan for personal growth by transforming their struggle into strength through training in six main areas:

  • Trust and Connection: Recognizing the importance of trust and how to foster deep and meaningful connections.
  • Education: Identifying the physical, psychological, and spiritual impacts of stress; examining the ways in which struggle can lead to growth and transformation.
  • Regulation: Adopting mental, physical, financial, and spiritual wellness practices to regulate thoughts, feelings, and actions.
  • Disclosure: Developing ways to self-disclose personal experiences which can be effective in strengthening interpersonal relationships.
  • Story: Creating a positive, forward-looking personal story that integrates past, present, and future.
  • Service: Developing a new plan to provide service to their family, workplace, and community.

Participants Reported Experiencing an Emotionally Enriched Life

Boulder Crest began piloting the Struggle Well training program in 2021 in partnership with the Miami-Dade County Chiefs of Police Association, and it quickly expanded to 37 departments and a multiyear undertaking to train more than 6,000 law enforcement officers and professionals.

According to Goldberg, 99 percent of those who participated were very satisfied with the training, reporting a 45 percent improvement in personal growth, based on self-assessments through the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI) developed by Dr. Tedeschi.

The results of the PTGI test indicated significant growth in each domain of posttraumatic growth:

  • Deeper Relationships: 56 percent improvement
  • New Possibilities: 48 percent improvement
  • Spiritual-Existential Change: 46 percent improvement
  • Personal Strength: 36 percent improvement
  • Appreciation for Life: 34 percent improvement

As other departments heard about the success of the training, they reached out to Boulder Crest. One of these agencies was the Tucson (Arizona) Police Department (TPD).

Said TPD Chief Chad Kasmar, “The Struggle Well training has been life-changing for many of our team members. There are a lot of mental health programs out there, but this one is different. It requires a cultural shift from the top of the department and all the way down to each individual, developing a different mindset on traumatic experiences. Both our professional and commissioned team members attend the training.

“We have been focusing on building trust and connection, and mutual support internally, which has had a positive effect on community as well as departmental relations. By being open about personal struggles, we build connection and empathy. If a team member is struggling, they share their concerns and get support from the agency.

“Half of our commissioned personnel are SW trained. We are also training a group of TPD staff as certified SW facilitators now, and they are helping facilitate SW training throughout Arizona. We’ve opened up our SW training to our peer city public safety departments, Tucson Fire and Public Safety Communications Department.”

Comprehensive Training Across an Officers Entire Professional and Personal Life

“We’re also incorporating the SW training into our Basic Academy, teaching recruits how to manage stress, for instance, as well as teaching them strategies for lifelong resilience and happiness,” said Chief Kasmar.

“The Posttraumatic Growth program gives public safety professionals a road map for managing their life and work experiences. But it does require commitment to a new outlook on life and relationships, with a daily investment. SW graduates are taught to practice a daily gratitude list—three things we’re grateful for before we start our day. We also open command meetings with an around the room where each commander shares something they are grateful for.”

Unlike typical wellness programs, Struggle Well is comprehensive, providing training across the entire lifecycle of a police officer’s career, beginning with the academy and continuing through retirement, teaching skills for lifelong resilience and happiness.

The five-day SW trainings for officers take the form of meetings of 20 to 25 people gathered around a table. They are led by facilitators, typically former military or first responders who have struggled themselves and who found peace in their lives by embracing the practices and principles of posttraumatic growth.

Training for Family Members, the Academy, and In-Service Programs

In addition to the training for officers, there are two-day training programs for command staff and one-day trainings for family members. Boulder Crest also delivers a Life Skills Training program, designed for integration into in-service programming and covering topics such as Life Behind the Badge, Change and Transition, and Emotional Competence. They also provide a train-the-trainer program for departments so that they can train their own facilitators.

The program continues to grow, with an estimated 40,000 people trained so far. And thanks to the generosity of AT&T’s FirstNet, the Gary Sinise Foundation, and the Community-Police Relations Foundation, Struggle Well is expanding to other locations.

Commenting on the success of Struggle Well, Goldberg said, “Most training in mental health is reactionary, just solving the immediate problem. It is not focused on helping that person become a better version of themselves.

“This program is focused entirely on them as individuals as well as on their family. And it has great impact. We consistently hear ‘I wish I could have gotten this when I started my career.’ Now so many officers will start their career with this posttraumatic growth–based approach, ensuring they can navigate their career in a healthy constructive fashion.”

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