Florida’s first advanced collegiate program designed to help first responders overcome internal and external mental health challenges now has a home in St. Petersburg.
As Sasha Lohn explained at Monday’s ceremony, law enforcement professionals are regular people who experience the worst in humanity. They frequently encounter community members undergoing a mental health crisis and often lack the tools to navigate both circumstances.
Lohn, executive director of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association (PBA), is one of several local leaders responsible for St. Petersburg College (SPC) creating the Applied Mental Health Certificate for Law Enforcement. St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway endorsed the initiative, SPC officials embraced its intent and local legislators ensured it received state funding.
“This is an opportunity for law enforcement officers to earn a credential that helps them feel at peace and makes them agents of change inside their departments,” Lohn said. “Why is this program important? Because it’s important to take care of people who take care of us.”
Lohn told stakeholders gathered at SPC’s Midtown Campus how the program’s need became apparent in the summer of 2020. The pandemic was in full swing, social unrest permeated the public consciousness, and she called it a “sad” and “heavy” time that “felt hopeless.”
Lohn and Jonathan Vazquez, president of the Suncoast PBA, brainstormed solutions for local law enforcers and the community they serve. They also recognized the benefit of fellow officers – who understand the job’s worst aspects – providing help.
“I can love them all, and I can be their lawyer,” Lohn said. “I can be an advocate, but I haven’t … been on the side of the road after a traffic fatality and held somebody’s baby.”
Participants must have an associate degree and take prerequisites before enrolling in the six-course program. It encompasses three semesters and provides 18 college credits. Gifts from the Pepin Family Foundation and the Tampa Bay Area Chiefs of Police Foundation cover tuition costs.
Rep. Linda Chaney presented a ceremonial check for $386,940 in state funding to establish the program. Kim Molinaro, a course instructor, said its key components cover assessment, diagnosis, intervention and prevention.
After the presentations, SPC officials welcomed the first cohort of officers to the Midtown Campus. Molinaro said they would delve deep into psychopathology.
“Throughout our country, the largest mental health institution is the jail,” she said. “The two-fold goal is not only facilitating officers helping officers with mental health, but it’s helping officers understand the mental health issues of people they serve in the community – because it’s prevalent.”
Lohn explained that the Applied Mental Health Certificate’s advanced courses extend far beyond the week-long classes mandated by most law enforcement agencies. The long-term goal is for the program to serve as a “launchpad” for officers to become licensed therapists once they retire from the force.
Vazquez is also an active-duty K-9 officer with the St. Petersburg Police Department and a U.S. Army veteran. He stressed that there is an added level of trust among people who have witnessed the same daily traumas.
Vazquez said the program would also aid spouses, who often serve as de facto therapists. He compared mental health education to a critical policing tool not found on utility belts and said it “no doubt helps the community as well.”
Chaney noted that 26% of state law enforcement officers admit to experiencing mental health issues, yet only 17% seek help. She said suicides now outpace deaths in the line of duty.
She told attendees that SPC’s pilot program “is just the beginning.” Like many stakeholders, Chaney wants to see it become a statewide and national model and pledged that school officials have “a partner for life.”
Dr. Tonjua Williams, president of SPC, said program funding was the only legislative request this year. She explained that the college’s primary goal is ensuring students leave the school with economic mobility and the opportunity to live a fulfilling life.
Williams said that includes public servants who witness things “you just can’t shake off” after returning home from work. She credited Holloway for believing in the program and Chaney for doggedly pursuing state funding.
Lohn wants the community to know that the local PBA is “not your grandfather’s law enforcement union.” She is the first woman to serve as its general counsel and executive director and noted that Vazquez is the organization’s first Hispanic president.
“We are forward-thinking, we are progressive and we are integrated into the community,” Lohn added. “When we have healthier police officers, you have a healthier community.”