Addressing Mental Health in Law Enforcement

Ashley Bergeron ’15 knew she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her uncle, a Maplewood police officer who was killed in the line of duty. She didn’t realize she’d use her degree to help change the fabric of the department along the way.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08, GS’16, new media strategist

September 30, 2019 | 7 a.m.

Maplewood Police Officer and Bethel psychology graduate Ashley Bergeron

Maplewood Police Officer and Bethel psychology graduate Ashley Bergeron

Psychology alumna Ashley Bergeron ’15 grew up around law enforcement, well aware of the rewards—and challenges—that come with the job. 

Her uncle, Joe Bergeron, was a Maplewood police sergeant who was killed in an ambush in 2010. Instead of driving her away from the profession, that tragedy solidified Bergeron’s desire to follow in her uncle’s footsteps. When she applied to Bethel, the college she had always wanted to attend, she felt a strong pull toward psychology and understanding “why people do what they do,” she recalls. “That incident just sparked what I wanted in career.”

Bergeron took the forensic psychology class with Associate Professor of Psychology Andy Johnson. She also took classes on criminal justice, forensic research, and the science of crime. She got a campus job in the Office of Safety and Security and, after graduation, spent a year as a Bethel staff sergeant while she explored her career options. 

She pursued law enforcement licensing, which would allow her to go directly into a patrol position with her degree from Bethel. Along the way, she learned about a shift happening in law enforcement, toward hiring candidates who have four-year degrees, especially in culture- and relationally-centered disciplines like English, communication studies, or foreign languages.

“The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences developed accreditation standards ... around critical thinking, the collection and evaluation of data, written and oral communication, and other aspects of a liberal arts education. It should come as no surprise that law enforcement agencies are looking for students from universities such as Bethel because these ‘soft skills’ or capacities are essential on the job.”

— Associate Professor of Psychology Andy Johnson

While pursuing her license, Bergeron took a class from Maplewood Chief of Police Paul Schnell, who had heard of her uncle. He encouraged her to join his department, something she hadn’t considered despite the family connection. 

“Applying there was really intimidating; I was up against 100 other applicants with more experience than I had,” Bergeron recalls. But she got the position and started as a patrol officer in February 2017. “I used to work the night shift, when you get the whole spectrum of calls—stuff you seriously can’t make up! But honestly, I’ve loved every day since then.” 

Bergeron expected a wide range of situations and saw her share of trauma. “Domestic situations and people—kids—who didn’t make it through accidents. The brain has a hard time processing trauma. Humans aren’t meant to deal with that on a daily basis, but cops do every day,” she says, adding that with her background in psychology, she’s become a huge proponent of fostering mental health awareness in the officers around her. 

She takes advantage of critical incident stress debriefings with her team after traumatic calls. She makes time for optional check-ins with the mental health counselor who’s contracted by the department. And she encourages those around her to do the same, as a way of processing the high-stress situations they face.

“You’re surrounded by the absolute worst of the human condition and dealing with people in crisis, the lowest of the low who don’t want to live anymore. But you’re able to be there and connect with them, let them know they don’t have to feel that way.”

— Ashley Bergeron '15

One element of the job that she didn’t expect was the high percentage of calls—about half—that involve people with mental illness: those who steal to fund an addiction or have violent outbursts or self-harm as a result of schizophrenia or depression. Some know they have underlying issues that result in run-ins with the law, but there’s a stigma and cost associated with getting help. Others are completely unaware or lack support systems that could help them get healthy. 

Bergeron began talking with her team about the prevalence of calls relating to mental health, and found out that other departments across the country had formed mental health outreach teams to identify such calls and offer resources to help mitigate the underlying problems behind crises.

“Sergeant Mike Dugas had been thinking of forming one here for a while, and we knew St. Paul had already started one locally. We thought, “We can do this!’” Bergeron says. They began meeting in late 2018 and enlisted the help of others on the force, most of whom were Minnesota Crisis Intervention Team (MN-CIT) certified in de-escalation tactics. They formalized a process for identifying, categorizing, and tracking situations that might have a mental health component at play and began putting together a collection of resources and referrals they could provide. In early 2019, they officially launched the Maplewood mental health outreach team.

“We’ve had a couple early successes where we’ve gotten people hooked up to the services that they need, but they may not have known about before,” Bergeron says. “Our goal is to see a reduction in cases that we respond to. But ultimately, we just want to get people healthy and in a sustainable lifestyle where they can manage their mental health.”

She also says her faith, and her time at Bethel, have profoundly impacted the way she sees her job. “Bethel made me a well-rounded officer. I know I bring not only police experiences, but also life experiences to my job with me,” Bergeron says. “We deal with all types of people. I was born an introvert, and I graduated with 38 other people in my high school class. So Bethel seemed huge! There were more people on campus than in the entire town of Frederic, Wisconsin, where I grew up. But it made me open up more. And a lot of my classes incorporated public speaking and working in teams.”

She thinks back to a final project she did in her senior seminar course with Professor of Psychology Kathy Nevins: “The psychological impacts of using deadly force in the line of duty.” As a student, she could analyze the hypothetical threats that police officers could face, and she could write about post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and other conditions that might come into play in crisis situations. 

“But I was writing that before I was an officer, and now I’m seeing it. It came full-circle,” Bergeron says. “Five years later, and I get it now!”

Study Psychology at Bethel University

Bethel’s department of psychology challenges students to look at the hows and whys of mental processes and behaviors. But they don’t just do it through textbooks. Professors help students apply complex principles to everyday life and integrate a Christian perspective with current psychological science.

Learn More