Battling PTSD on the front end

by W. THOMAS SMITH, JR. May 23, 2016

Sheriff Leon Lott

Sheriff's Dept. in S.C. offers "unique" pre-trauma conditioning program

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) - combat stress, shell shock, battle fatigue or any of the other labels used to refer to PTSD - is one of the most-debilitating albeit least understood emotional disorders suffered by those living in the wake of experienced trauma. The military services, military medical practitioners, and a number of military veterans groups have only just begun to appreciate the risk of PTSD to combat veterans. But it's still only a surface understanding. The symptoms are varied. Rarely is there any preemptive training to mitigate the symptoms of PTSD. The public is becoming increasingly aware of PTSD, but if a non-sufferer is not impacted by it, PTSD becomes something of an "out of sight, out of mind" non-issue.

Richland County (S.C.) Sheriff Leon Lott is striving to change that dynamic within his Richland County Sheriff's Dept. (RCSD), a force of some 700 deputies including patrol officers and those involved in counter-gang and drug-interdiction operations in the county encompassing the state's capitol city, Columbia.

Lott's approach to PTSD includes a stepped-up public and agency awareness effort and a new pre-risk conditioning program aimed at preparing his deputies for any and all physical and psychological trauma-risks before those deputies ever hit the street.   

"This is critical to the well-being of our people," says Lott. "Most civilians cannot relate to the effects of a critical incident or repeated incidents on a person. PTSD is real. It's damaging. And I want to ensure my deputies are able to recognize it in themselves and others." He adds, "It's best we begin the process of understanding the risk and the disorder at the front of the pipeline as opposed to simply trying to deal with it post-trauma."

Confronting PTSD before the experienced trauma is what Lott says his Critical Incident and PTSD Awareness Training program aims to accomplish. Dubbed "an innovative new program" by The State newspaper, the training developed in-house by the RCSD, looks at the various physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms of PTSD. But it's much more. Instruction includes coping strategies; myths; truths; how to reduce, control, or respond to stress-reactions from critical events; the importance of family, friends, churches, and support groups in dealing with PTSD; as well as department and extra-departmental resources for the effected person.

Innovative to be sure. There are many support programs offered by various organizations after the onset of PTSD symptoms. But the pre-trauma training offered by the RCSD may well be the only program of its kind in the country, especially among law-enforcement agencies.

According to ‘Mastering their demons: Richland deputies learn to recognize PTSD early' (The State, May 15, 2016), "It's standard for departments to offer counseling after an officer is involved in a stressful situation - it's unusual to try to preempt it [like the RCSD is doing]. But addressing the stress thoroughly is what helps many sufferers recover, experts say. Talking about it also might help law enforcement agencies, just like military branches, change their tough-guy culture that forces officers to suffer in silence - or worse, make mistakes on the job that could have terrible outcomes."

The article points to a University of British Columbia study that determined emergency responders suffered PTSD at "twice the rate of the rest of the population."

High rates of suffering are what Lott hopes to mitigate.

"My hat is off to Sheriff Lott for his addressing this very real issue on the front end," says Bobby Farmer, CEO of Project Josiah Restoration Ministry, a S.C.-based non-profit support group for PTSD sufferers. A U.S. Army combat veteran, Farmer believes Lott's program is "essential in coping with the daily rigors of stress pertaining to mental health of first responders like those serving with the RCSD. There is an obvious parallel between what these officers are doing everyday and what infantry soldiers are dealing with overseas."

Farmer adds, "The best help is peer-to-peer counseling for those suffering the effects of PTSD."

Not all who experience trauma suffer from PTSD. According to the National Center for PTSD (U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs), approximately seven to eight percent of the population will experience some level of PTSD at some point in their lives. Though experts have yet to get their heads around the actual numbers, those percentages increase dramatically among personnel serving in frontline military units, police departments and other first-responder teams. Problem is; those suffering from PTSD - or those exposed to stress and extreme risk - often hide or suppress their feelings; or the disorder itself lies dormant for months, even years after a traumatic event or series of events.

The RCSD program is designed to identify the disorder, even if it is hiding or lying dormant, and prevent or lessen its effects before it surfaces. There is also an accountability factor as better-informed deputies will be able to identify the onset of PTSD in fellow officers, helping the sufferer better-understand and cope with the symptoms. 

Innovation and the well-being of his deputies have long-defined Lott, who upon assuming command of the RCSD, 20-years-ago, began establishing a culture of high-speed physical fitness within his department that today serves as a model nationally, even among foreign police agencies. And just as physical fitness requires hard training and conditioning, "so too does mental and emotional fitness," says Lott. "Conditioning is key. That's why we're tackling PTSD on the front end before it strikes."

W. Thomas Smith Jr. - a former U.S. Marine rifleman - is a military analyst and partner with NATIONAL DEFENSE CONSULTANTS, LLC. Visit him at

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