More than two dozen Rice County law enforcement officers and first responders now have tools they need to help defuse the wide variety of tense situations they now encounter on a near-daily basis.

The Sept. 25 training session was made possible thanks to a grant the Rice County Chemical and Mental Health Coalition received from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. With plans to hold similar sessions next year and in 2021, the coalition hopes to provide training for every law enforcement officer in Rice County.

Last year, a state law went into effect requiring peace officers to have completed at least 16 hours of de-escalation training. This more complete 40-hour course, taken over four days, takes officers off the streets for a longer period of time than the shorter course. Course advocates say that it’s worth the cost.

The bill requiring de-escalation training passed with strong support from the law enforcement community.

Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn praised the program as a critically important way to help officers better serve those with mental health issues, while adding that more funds are still needed to help people with mental health issues get the treatment they need.

“Our staff gave (the program) very positive reviews and said they learned a lot from it,” said Dunn. “I think it was very beneficial and it will benefit not only deputies and officers, but (also) families and people we’re interacting with.”

According to RCCMHC Coordinator Katie Reed, mental health and de-escalation methods have not been covered extensively in officer training. In recent years, a series of policing incidents across the country related to mental health response have led to increased focus on the issue.

Much of the course was composed of role play, giving officers the chance to practice proper response techniques to a mental health call with the help of live actors. Officers heard from medical professionals and others about the resources available in Rice County to help those struggling with mental health.

The course was ultimately designed to help officers de-escalate a wide variety of scenarios. Among the issues addressed in the course were military reintegration, officer mental health, suicide awareness, cultural sensitivity and youth mental health issues.

Each of Rice County’s three large police departments (Northfield and Faribault Police and the Rice County Sheriff’s Office) sent large delegations to the training. Smaller delegations were present from the Lonsdale and Dundas Police departments as well as campus safety officers from St. Olaf and Carleton.

Chad Christiansen, who serves as operations officer at St. Olaf College, attended the training. He said the training provided additional information about issues campus safety officers deal with on a daily basis.

“If you have a toolbox and the only tool you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail,” Christiansen said. “Trainings like these gives you more tools to help students deal with mental health crises.”

Due to both their young age and the stress of leaving behind their family and friends at home, students find themselves particularly prone to issues with their mental health. College students are at an age when with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or schizophrenia can begin to show themselves.

Christiansen said that too often, these mental health stressors lead to suicidal thoughts or even suicide attempts on campus. He said that a significant part of his officers’ job is to get those struggling with mental health crises the help they need.

According to a survey published last year in the academic journal Depression and Anxiety, 1 in 5 college students have had suicidal thoughts and nearly 10% have attempted suicide. Among students in the LGBTQ+ community, a stunning 58% reported suicidal thoughts and 28% attempted suicide.

Christiansen was pleased that the training included numerous scenarios designed to help officers help those experiencing suicidal thoughts and those who may have attempted suicide.

“They made the scenarios really realistic for what we deal with,” he said.

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