NEW CASTLE, Del. (AP) — A class of officers in training at the New Castle County Police Department knelt on mats set up on the gym floor early one morning.
“Focu(s) in on your breathing,” Jennifer Boileau instructed.
The early morning yoga lesson was part of the new federal grant-funded holistic officer wellness program aimed at addressing the mental health needs of those serving on the force.
“Officers experience tremendous levels of stress … on a daily basis,” said Boileau, a trauma-informed yoga instructor. “Continual stress wreaks havoc on the body. It affects the brain. It affects the nervous system. And it affects their overall sense of well-being.”
A 2020 study published in the National Library of Medicine found that 26% of police officers experienced mental health symptoms, compared with 21% of the general population that year.
However, mental illness often comes with a lot of stigma – especially in the police force. Sgt. Eugene Reid said he hopes this program will change that.
“We realize that by providing resources … we can provide a better service to the citizens of New Castle County,” Reid said.
These resources are available “from hiring to retiring,” Reid said. Officers in training, active and retired officers, paramedics and 911 dispatchers, as well as their families, now have access to personal trainers, financial advisors and, of course, trauma-informed yoga sessions with Boileau.
Prior to the introduction of the holistic officer wellness program, Reid said officers had access only to certified counselors through the department’s employee assistance program.
Now, Boileau said she’s already seen the benefits of these expanded resources in action. Officers in training have come to her lessons from “very high-stress incidents,” but practicing yoga and meditation has “allow(ed) them to feel a much deeper sense of peace and kind of get back to that baseline of feeling calm and ready for the rest of their day.”
Applying these calming techniques out in the field may also help officers responding to mental health crises, which are a growing area of concern nationwide. Proposed legislation in the U.S. Senate aimed at training police in de-escalation tactics also seeks to address the issue.
The New Castle County Police Department said it plans to expand the holistic officer wellness program to officers in training at other facilities when it has the resources – potentially in the form of more government grants – for it.