Retired Army ranger helps Mid-Michigan police develop a 'Bulletproof Mind'

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MID-MICHIGAN (WJRT) (7/9/2019) - Police officers are equipped with a gun, bulletproof vest, tactical gear, physical training and countless forms of physical protection on the job.

Retired U.S. Army ranger Dave Grossman talks with Mid-Michigan police officers about developing a "Bulletproof Mind."

But what about their minds?

A former U.S. Army ranger now travels the world reminding officers their mental health matters. His message comes during a year when more officers took their own lives than those who died in the line of duty.

Sixty-one officers died in the line of duty so far in 2019 compared to 104 who committed suicide.

The stresses police officers face are well documented as they handle calls for child abuse, murders and deadly car crashes.

"The responsibilities involved with this job are not to be taken lightly," said retired Army Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.

He used to teach at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and now writes books about the topic. After 24 years with the military, he's now devoting his time helping police officers develop what he calls "A Bulletproof Mind."

"Interpersonal human aggression is the most toxic, corrosive psychological realm anybody will ever face, and that's what cops deal with every day," Grossman said.

Responding to call after call, typically working a 12-hour shift wears down even the strongest officer.

"Our goal is emotional survival," Grossman said. "We lose far more cops to suicide every year than we do to criminals."

Grossman's main message to the police officers gathered at a training seminar earlier this month in Swartz Creek was simple: The world needs you.

"I tell all my cops, believe in who you are, believe in what you do, because if nobody did what you did, it would be chaos and despair and very bad things would happen," he said.

More than 200 officers from across Mid-Michigan participated. The U.S. Attorney's Office for Eastern Michigan offered the wellness training for free.

"Really get over that hump of saying, 'You know, I gotta be stoic the entire time and not be able to say anything.' This way we can share that it's OK, talk to us, you know, and you need to take care of yourself first and foremost if you're going to take care of anybody else," said Mitchell Kittle with the U.S. Attorney's Office.

He said mental health is a topic the federal government doesn't take lightly.

"With all the active shooters and just the way society is going, we're trying to get as many people, as much information as we can to more prepare for what's going on today," Kittle said.

Grossman said many people lose sight of how much police officers "love what they do" despite the constant stress.

"If the public knew how much cops love what they do, they'd be lining up to do this job," he said. "There's something new every day, there's a new challenge everyday, and they're trained and they're good at it."

But Grossman said each challenge brings mental anguish, which leads to traumatic stress disorder that can spiral all the way to suicide.

For the fourth year in a row, Blue HELP, a nonprofit run by active and retired police officers, reports more officers took their own lives than were killed in the line of duty. There are a number of reasons why, but Grossman points to one of the easiest to overlook: Sleep.

It's a problem that keeps growing, because he pointed recruitment and retention are low.

"And we get in kind of a death spiral," Grossman said.

Being short on manpower results in officers consistently working overtime, which leads to sleep deprivation.

"Airline pilots and truck drivers are required by law to get enough sleep, but cops aren't and that should ... anger us," Grossman said.

He pointed out any person, let alone a police officer running on little sleep, cannot properly do their job

"Eighteen hours without sleep, your impaired judgment equals a .08 legally drunk. Twenty-four hours without sleep, your impaired judgment equals a .10 above legally drunk. Two nights without sleep and you are psychotic," Grossman said.

People often say and do things they regret for the rest of their lives when they're sleep deprived, he said. That is a key factor in the increased suicide rate among police.

"Sleep deprived people, the military research tells us sleep deprived people can be up to five times more likely to take their life," Grossman said.

Sgt. Todd Gilbert with the Grand Blanc Township Police Department attended the training. He said having an open conversation about what's going on inside his mind is extremely helpful

"To be able to recognize that, talk about that, discuss it openly and have reasonable, meaningful conversations regarding it, I think that's a wonderful thing," Gilbert said.

His department encourages discussions about how each officer is doing -- and he hopes the community will take the time to learn about their struggles too.

"By educating themselves, that will support us," Gilbert said. "So the public can definitely take the opportunity when it presents itself to educate themselves about what it is a police officer goes through, through the course of their shift and through the course of their career."

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