On Thursday afternoon, a dozen novice police officers straightened their backs, closed their eyes and started to meditate for the first time.
“You are going to face things in this career that your family and friends will never face,” said their trainer, Detective Inspector Jenni McIntyre-Smith. “To be able to deal with that is important.”
She asked the first-year Bedfordshire police constables to focus on their breathing, the sensations in their bodies and to observe their thoughts, techniques derived from Buddhist meditation which might soon be as integral to an officer’s training as how to wield a truncheon.
The College of Policing is to fund a trial of a secular version of mindfulness training for more than 1,500 officers in part to combat soaring stress and anxiety in the service, which has forced record numbers to take time off sick in the past year.
Its backers hope to improve officers’ management of high-adrenaline confrontations, make them more alert when gathering evidence, improve listening skills when dealing with witnesses and victims and even help firearms officers make better decisions.
Demand for the police’s “Mindfit Cop” course was high in what is often considered a macho profession, with places filling up in less than a week.
Four hundred and fifty-seven officers in Avon and Somerset and 300 in South Wales will take the eight week course, alongside colleagues from Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire.
The rollout after that could be significant.
Nerys Thomas, the head of research at the College of Policing, said: “If the responses are positive we would then look to make this available to all forces in England and Wales.”
The move is indicative of fast-growing interest in mindfulness in public services – even as scientists continue to study how effective it actually is.
More than half a million schoolchildren and 3,000 civil servants have been introduced to the techniques; there are 30 programmes for prisoners and prison officers and courses are offered to nurses and doctors in several National Health Service (NHS) trusts.
More than 200 MPs and peers have taken a course, although, as McIntyre-Smith joked to her recruits in Bedford, that may not have been the best advert.
There are early signs of possible effectiveness in policing.
An initial trial in Bedfordshire suggested work-related-burnout was, on average, lower for 72 people who used the techniques and an internal report concluded: “Participants reported sleeping better, being able to reduce pain medication and feeling calmer and less reactive.”
Modern mindfulness emerged in the US in the late 70s where it was developed to help seriously ill people manage pain.
It has since spread globally, popularised by apps such as Headspace.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is recommended by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence to treat recurrent depression.
Stress is a serious problem for the police.
Nearly 10,000 officers, equivalent to one in 12, took time off sick with stress or anxiety over the past year, according to figures released this summer.
A hundred officers from constable rank to superintendent in Bedfordshire have taken a course, which includes a day staying silent.
Among the officers who had taken the course was Sergeant Karen Jarman, who was off work for seven months with post-traumatic stress disorder after she was beaten unconscious during a routine drugs search.
She said it had enabled her to overcome severe anxiety and get back to work.
She now uses the techniques when deployed, which last week included being first on the scene of a murder.
“You are getting into high-stress situations and as a supervisor you need to be calm,” she said. “We were driving under blue lights but I was talking to myself and concentrating on my breath and making it slower.”
Another sergeant, who asked not to be named, said: “I encounter difficulties when attending incidents with weapons, due to being the victim of a nasty stabbing.
“I have received a lot of support and assistance to build coping strategies, none quite as effective as the three-part breathing technique which forms part of Mindfit Training.
“When a job comes in where a person is armed with a knife and I am the closest unit to attend, I would always feel this is a difficult situation.
“The breathing technique gives me strength in those moments.”