Local law enforcement officers attend the inaugural class of the mental health certification program at St. Petersburg College on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023 in St. Petersburg. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]

St. Petersburg College on Monday announced a new program to train local law enforcement officers how to better respond to colleagues and members of the public with mental health challenges.

The three-semester curriculum includes six courses in counseling and interviewing skills, as well as substance abuse and family interactions. Said to be the first of its kind in the state, the program came about after the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association approached the college.

The union has seen a growing need for mental health intervention in recent years, Sasha Lohn, the organization’s general counsel and executive director, said during an announcement at the college’s Midtown campus.

She shared the story of a female law enforcement officer during the early days of the pandemic, when first responders feared what they could bring home to their families. The officer faced struggles at home as her children were home-schooled. She also felt helpless about a domestic violence case she had responded to while on the job. Weeks later, she was disciplined for being late to work.

“They’re not sexy, interesting disciplinary cases: 98% of the cases that our law enforcement union works on are HR-related,” Lohn said. “They are people who come to work late. They’re people who are discourteous. They are people who are tired. They’re not bad people; they’re people just like us.”

That officer sought therapy, Lohn said, but didn’t want to continue after she made the therapist cry. In her sessions, the officer had shared information about the domestic violence case she was working on and how it affected her family life.

Lohn recalled the officer saying: “I told (the therapist) how sad it was to go home and not be able to hold my kids, and she started to cry in our therapy session. That’s how messed up I am.’”

Lohn said that made her realize officers needed to be better served before problems “metastasized.”

“It’s important to take care of the people who take care of us,” she said.

While 26% of law enforcement officers say they face mental health challenges, only 17% seek help, said state Rep. Linda Chaney, R-St. Pete Beach, who championed a bill to secure some funding for the program.

Lohn said the program, which held its inaugural classes Monday, will give law enforcement officers skills to be “agents of change inside their departments,” able to identify colleagues facing challenges and talk with them.

She said she hopes the students will continue their education and become licensed mental health counselors who bring first-hand experience and can “confidentially discuss with men and women who have served in law enforcement, what they have seen, what they have smelled, what they have touched, what they have experienced.”

The first group to go through the program includes 14 active law enforcement officers, referred by their departments or St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway. The first round of funding came from state funds and the Pepin Family Foundation.

Joseph Smiley, dean of SPC’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Human Services, said he hopes to expand the program to retired law enforcement officers and other first responders, including paramedics and firefighters. He said he’s received inquiries from other law enforcement agencies with interest in signing up their officers.

Kim Molinaro, a psychology professor teaching a course on assessment and intervention, said the program will also help police officers better serve their communities and help address the mental health issues community members may be facing.

“We specialize this course for our police cohort,” she said. “But it’s targeted for them to just prepare them and the work that they do, in the world that they do it in.”

Chaney, the state representative, said she hopes the programs serves as a pilot for others across the state and nation.

Funding for the program was the college’s first legislative priority, said SPC President Tonjua Williams.

“For education, we are the first responders,” she said. “Our job is to make sure that individuals who engage with us leave us with economic mobility and the opportunity to lead a great life. That includes our public servants: those who come in the house, barely crossing the threshold with the things that they have experienced all day — from murders to illnesses to brawls to fights. Sometimes you just can’t shake that stuff off.”

Divya Kumar is a higher education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.