Operation Resilience offers more in-depth learning

Some of the presenters at Operation Resilience have been (from left) Sister Edna Michel, director of the St. Francis Spirituality Center; Chief Bill Wilkins of Defiance Fire and Rescue; Lt. Aaron Russell of Tiffin Police Department; and Lt. Brent Meredith of Ohio State Highway Patrol, Fremont post.

By Vicki Johnson

Staff Writer

vjohnson@advertiser-tribune.com

In addition to a four-hour HeartMath program being offered to Tiffin police officers is a 3 1/2-day Operation Resilience retreat program offered by St. Francis Spirituality Center.

“For our overall mental health, it’s extremely important,” said Lt. Aaron Russell of Tiffin Police Department in an article he wrote about Operation Resilience for the Ohio Police Chief publication. “Nationally, law officers take their own lives at a greater number than those that are taken feloniously.

“They are subject to greater likelihood of alcohol abuse, depression, divorce, and other self-destructive behaviors,” he said.

“We have the same stressors that everybody has — family, finances and normal living within society,” he said. “Couple this with forced overtime, shiftwork and consistently dealing with people that are in crises exponentially increases these stressors.

“An officer can be clinically taught how to investigate and process the scene of a crime, but where this profession has failed is in teaching the officer how to deal with the visceral onslaught of emotions that accompany the horrors of this job,” he said. “We cannot remove the stress from this profession, but we can teach, train and mitigate our responses to stress.”

Enter Operation Resilience.

“It’s a 100 percent good method of doing this,” he said.

In brief, Russell said Operation Resilience offers participants a chance to step back in a peaceful retreat setting to identify and process traumatic events.

To assist with the process are educational sessions and guided group sessions which enable first responders to understand they are not alone.

“A sense of cohesiveness and community develops, which is a vital step in restoring health and well-being,” he said. “Normally, it’s not socially acceptable to talk about these issues. We don’t even talk to our own families about them.”

The program uses Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing — or EMDR — a nationally recognized method of re-processing critical incidents. The same program is used by the U.S. Armed Forces for dealing with post-traumatic stress.

“It’s wonderful and it works,” Russell said.

The third part of the program is “Reframe.”

“This course creates a renewed sense of self, which is the first step toward improving participants’ professional and family life,” he said.

A team of mental health professionals and others teach participants individually about ways of coping with stress as well as how to set goals to address stressful situations as well as improve self-awareness, self-care and overall functioning, professionally and personally.

“Sister Edna is the driving force behind this,” he said. “We have been fortunate enough to have six of our officers go through this.”

“They were encouraged to do it, and they volunteered to go through it,” Russell said. “I highly encouraged them to go.”

Michel is working to get the word out about the program, but she’s noticing there’s a need to educate people about the program first.

“I was really hoping this would take off and fly,” she said. “The need is obvious.”

However, she said it’s been a challenge finding a way to create openness to the need for it.

Michel said she happened upon the idea by chance.

At an unrelated event a few years ago, Michel had lunch with Sister Ann Dougherty of Tampa. The conversation turned to a program Dougherty was involved in.

“She offered for me to come down and observe it,” Michel said. “At that point I was not yet director of the Spirituality Center. However, when I became director here, within the first week, I remembered it.”

She wrote a letter to the police department, which was referred to Russell.

The two, along with other area emergency services personnel, traveled to Tampa.

“To my knowledge there was nothing else going on in northwest Ohio that compared to it,” Michel said. “I spent most of the rest of the year looking for quality people.”

The first program was offered in November 2015, and in August 2016 the program had five participants.

Michel has been speaking to the leaders of area police departments and regional meetings of emergency personnel to garner support for the program.

Six participants in each session would be ideal, she said.

“It’s a small group we’re working with,” she said. “There’s better camaraderie, more interaction and more freedom to speak.”

She said each person signs a confidentiality agreement “that holds forever,” Michel said. “So that people are free to talk about what they need to talk about.”

She said the program is directly oriented to the first responder culture.

“They think, ‘We got to be tough. We can’t show our emotions,'” Michel said. “There’s very seldom is a good way of processing all the stuff that comes later.

“Their training kicks in and they do what they need to do, but afterward they need a way to ciphon off the adrenaline,” she said. “Unfortunately, they go too often with a way of processing it. And sometimes they go the local bar to drink it away.”

That can lead to issues with alcohol or drug abuse, or problems within their families.

“We offer a program that has an educational component,” she said. “It’s highly holistically oriented — mind, body and spirit, and emotions, intellect and social interaction.”

Even if an individual is able to process a major stressor themselves, too many in a short time can take their toll.

“It might take two or three weeks to deal with it emotionally,” she said. “If another incident comes up within that time, it leads to cumulative stress.

“They learn what goes on in the physical brain from a psychological point of view,” she said. “It’s not emotional weakness.”

The program includes trauma-releasing exercises and sessions on physical health and wellness such as diet, exercise and relationships.

“What are you doing to build a balances life,” she said. “What can I do for myself so I’m not carrying resentment, anger, migraine headaches, sleeplessness or shortness with loved ones.”

A major component is small group sessions where participants talk about their experiences.

“The whole group listens,” she said. “And they start asking each other questions and supporting each other.

“Some haven’t reviewed some incidents for 10 years,” she said. “But they’re still there and they graphically describe every step.”

It’s about letting out those experiences in a way that lets the brain process and release them.

“One person said he was more nervous walking into the building on the first morning than if he had been called to a house where guns were a danger,” she said. “That’s part of what makes it scary, but it is so healing.

“We don’t work miracles, but I’ve seen a lot of transformation happen,” she said.

Because of the stigma, officers were promised anonymity, but some of their responses after taking the class included:

“This class should be mandatory for all first responders. Just like CIT except for ourselves.”

“The group session on the first day showed how we all came in with the same fear of the unknown and fear of ‘how can I confront my demons’ to being able to share with each other by the end of the week.”

“I learned this week that through the (skills) I have been given, I can live a peaceful life if I continue to practice these exercises. I cannot thank the people enough that made it possible for me to come here. I can honestly say that you saved my life.”

“This was a great change of pace from always feeling the need to not feel anything. … It’s nice to feel as if I’ve found a little bit of what was missing. Hopefully, I will make each day more worthwhile for myself and my family.”

“I was a little worried about this at the start, but it didn’t take long to realize this is what I NEEDED. I wish I could have done this sooner. I also hope that more people can share this experience. I will be an advocate for the program.”

“This class was a life changer for me and allowed me to choose a path of peace rather than the path of quitting and moving on to a career that I do not want. My transition back to life is almost like my rebirth. I can hold my head up high and continue forward again. Thank you again for the wonderful, life altering, experience!”

Michel said she will schedule another session when she has eight applications from first responders.

For more information, visit franciscanretreats.org/retreats/first-responders or call Michel at (419) 443-1485 or (567) 230-0061, or call Russell at (419) 447-2323.

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