“Emotional Survival for Public Service Professionals” seeks to address burnout in high-stress career fields

Thinking about Criminal Justice in an academic setting may draw to mind images of tactical training exercises, dissections of the law, and mock trial experiences. While each of these are important examples of the in-class and experiential education typical of a Criminal Justice academic program, there is one gap in many such programs that Instructor of Criminal Justice Derrick Lail is seeking to fill with his new course, “Emotional Survival for Public Service Professionals.”

This course, targeted at future police officers, firefighters, EMTs, teachers, and other professions that necessitate what Lail refers to as “hypervigilance,” seeks to address the high levels of burnout, cynicism, and mental health struggles that often develop throughout an individual’s career in these fields. According to Lail, the level of hypervigilance required for these careers causes a harmful cycle where professionals’ levels of stress and awareness are spiked while on the job and crash below normal levels once they get home. This roller coaster, he says, can cause emotion-regulation problems, depression, loss of identity, and in some professions lead to a higher rate of suicide than the average.

“It comes down to what makes these professions unique. You have to be hyper-vigilant on the job as a necessity of the job. There’s a normal range of risk, stress, and vigilance with daily life, and these professions have to always be above it on the job,” Lail said. “They are told not to talk about what they see, so a lot of officers come home, and they don’t talk to anybody. Oftentimes they end up hanging out with only cops so they can talk about cop stuff, and then the job becomes the identity. We see high divorce rates, burnout, and cynicism, and it’s because of the necessity of the profession to be on high alert.”

The primary goal of this course is to provide students with awareness about these issues, give them an understanding of the way their minds and bodies may react to these high levels of stress and hypervigilance, and provide them with tools to manage them while remaining successful, happy, and healthy throughout their career in the field.

Awareness is the first step in giving students the tools to manage their bodies’ responses once they enter their careers. Lail references a study that shows the amount of time it takes a human body to come back to homeostasis following a highly stressful event that requires extreme levels of hypervigilance: 18 to 24 hours. When hypervigilance is a part of the job each day, he says, the body barely has a chance to return to balance on a day off before it’s time to get back into that hypervigilant headspace.

“We see a lot of people who do part-time work in the same field so they can stay up. They’ll be volunteer firefighters when they’re off-duty or something,” Lail said. “It’s almost like an adrenaline junky, but just to avoid the crash.”

By giving students the tools to manage these issues, Lail says he hopes that Lees-McRae graduates who go on to pursue careers in professions that require hypervigilance are able to have a healthier relationship with their job, maintain an identity and life outside of their work, and achieve “emotional survival” by avoiding burnout and cynicism on the job. One of the ways these lessons are built into the classroom is through experiential learning exercises such as a scenario Lail held recently in the Bowman Building.

Throughout this experiential learning scenario, students in the course performed exercises to raise their heartrate before entering a mock crime scenario with blasting sirens, flashing lights, and frantic role players. With their heartrates raised, and in a state of pseudo-hypervigilance, the students were required to navigate the crime scene. Unlocking a door tested their fine motor skills, a frantic witness called for them to commit details to memory, and a perpetrator on the loose required them to act efficiently and respond quickly to secure the scene. After the scenario the students reflected on the way their fast heartrates, heightened cortisol levels, and hypervigilance impacted their ability to navigate the scene, recall their training, and respond efficiently and effectively.

“It taught me that I’m pretty good at calming myself down. Once we got our heart rates up, there were multiple times when I had to practice breathing exercises to bring my heart rate down so that I could focus,” Special Education major Maddie Campo said. “It really taught me that it’s okay to get stressed; my heart rate is going to go up, and I do have the skills to focus past that. Now I know how to operate if my heart rate does get that high. If I were to be in a situation that high-stress, I would know how to function.”

Following graduation, Campo has plans of working in elementary education with special education qualifications and responsibilities. She said that this course has been extremely beneficial as a future-educator in addressing potential burnout and preparing her for emergency situations. According to her, teachers are often in a state of hypervigilance because of the unpredictability of young children, as well as the risk of external threats that many schools have faced in recent years.

Being a Special Education major, Campo said she may never have considered taking a Criminal Justice course had she not been encouraged by her professors and academic advisors. Now, having completed the majority of the class, she recommends this unique training and experience to all education students.

“I really feel like it was a privilege to be put in this class. It’s not information that I would have necessarily sought out on purpose, because it is difficult, and the practical we went through was intense, but I think that it’s necessary,” Campo said. “I think it’s important to know how I would react in an emergency situation, because it could happen to me. I feel better knowing that I can be prepared, and that I do have the tools to help myself in that situation so that I’m in less danger and the people that I’m with are in less danger.

For now, “Emotional Survival for Public Service Professionals” is a special-topics course in the Criminal Justice program, but it is open to students from a variety of majors who are interested in pursuing a range of career paths. Campo is one of a handful of Special and Elementary Education majors in the course, but many of her classmates are interested in pursuing careers in law enforcement, fire and rescue, and the military. Lail said that in the future he hopes this course can reach even more students and give them the tools they will need to regulate their emotions, remain happy and healthy in their careers, and avoid burnout.

“So many people go into these professions, and they don’t talk to you about what hypervigilance is going to look like,” Lail said. “That’s tool number one in the toolbelt, because these students will be more aware than 99% of their profession going in.”

By Maya JarrellNovember 16, 2023