When you choose a profession of helping others, sometimes the hardest challenge is asking for help yourself.
“Our goal is creating a culture within the Moorhead Police Department where it’s OK for an officer to ask for help when they need it,” says Aaron Suomala Folkerds. “I’m here to be a bridge between law enforcement and the mental health system – like an emergency room or walk-in clinic.”
Moorhead was one of the first cities in the U.S. to bring a new focus on wellness and resiliency to the men and women who protect and serve. Folkerds has been a fixture in the department since April 2020, just weeks before society’s views of policing underwent seismic change. Simmering concerns about law enforcement came to a boil in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, and mental health – of those involved in incidents, but also the officers called to keep the peace – suddenly became an issue.
“We were already in the trenches,” notes Capt. Deric Swenson. “Then, at exactly the same time Aaron came aboard, the culture of law enforcement started changing. He came at the right time.”
But Folkerds had already become a familiar figure at the MPD wearing a different hat. Both an ordained Lutheran pastor and a mental health expert with a doctorate in counselor education and support, he had been the department’s volunteer chaplain since 2016. Back then, at the urging of Officer John Lien, then-Chief David Ebinger sent out what Folkerds terms a “cold call” letter to Moorhead pastors, looking for someone who could revive the department’s long-dormant chaplaincy. Folkerds was one of six who responded. “I did a ride-along with John and talked to others,” he remembers, “and I knew this was something I wanted to do.”
When Chief Shannon Monroe took over the department’s leadership in July 2018, one of his focuses was the well being of officers under his command. A conversation began about how resiliency and mental wellness could be built into the department. With the enthusiastic support of the City Council, the MPD ultimately contracted with Folkerds to pioneer that approach. Moorhead became one of only a dozen departments in the U.S. – and the smallest by far – to incorporate mental health counseling into its regimen.
“Law enforcement officers are a unique breed,” Swenson observes. “In 15 calls for service during one 10-hour shift, a patrol officer may point a gun, have a gun pointed at him or her, step into a domestic violence confrontation, give CPR to a choking baby, encounter a dead body … then, at the end of the shift, try to normalize and not carry those experiences home.
“You internalize that piece of who you are, but it doesn’t go anywhere. We’d like to think you can flip the light switch when you go off duty, but that stress is always there, even when you don’t recognize it. Aaron helps us develop the tools to recognize those internal and external stresses instead of bottling them up until some life event slaps you in the face and they explode.”
As the MPD’s embedded counselor and wellness coordinator – a part-time position of 10 hours a week on paper, but far more in real life – Folkerds has worked to become an everyday part of MPD culture. He has an office in the department, sometimes attends shift changes, and is available for informal conversations when officers want to talk.
Folkerds’ “day job” is an assistant professorship in Minnesota State University Moorhead’s master’s program in counseling. But despite his extensive educational background in the field, including both master’s and doctorate degrees from Minnesota State-Mankato, there was no blueprint to follow when he joined the police department. The concept is literally that new.
Instead, he visited several other departments working actively to support officers’ wellness, including Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, and put their insights along with his own into the new program here in Moorhead. Swenson observes, “Aaron has basically built our program from the ground up.” He adds that the department hopes someday to share what it’s developing with others around the country.
“It’s not normal for anybody to run toward danger when all your instincts are telling you to run away,” Folkerds points out. “Yet that’s what officers do. They’re trained to put the safety of others before their own. We talk with them about building their resiliency and wellness – thinking about themselves as an instrument for helping others, an instrument that needs preparation and support.”
In the past, veteran officer Swenson recalls, “Mental health was just a poster on the bulletin board. There were a couple lines about the Employee Assistance Program and a phone number. That was a very, very hard call for an officer to make. You’re supposed to be the strong one – never to admit that you may need help.”
Along with supporting officers’ own mental health, the MPD counselor plays a role in educating them to better recognize mental illness in the public. “We don’t get mental health calls. We hear about a ‘suspicious person,’” Swenson says.
Folkerds adds, “We’re giving officers the tools to recognize and, more importantly, deal with what they see on the street. What does depression look like? Anxiety? A panic attack, or some other psychiatric episode?” They’re focusing more on PTSD as well, along with techniques for verbally deescalating situations: “Basically, I’m repackaging what I teach counseling students at MSUM, but tailored for cops.”
Folkerds and his wife, Rev. Mary Suomala Folkerds, were pastors in southern Minnesota for seven years before moving to Moorhead in 2012 after she received a call to Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, where she continues as lead pastor. With his dual background in theology and mental health, Aaron first worked as a needs assessment counselor at Prairie St. John’s for three years before accepting a call to Lutheran Church of Christ the King in 2014. Four years later, he taught at the University of Mary’s Fargo campus for a year before joining the MSUM faculty.
Both Folkerds and Swenson emphasize the value of their collaboration with MSUM. “I’m grateful MSUM has been willing to support this relationship,” the counselor says. “And what goes on up here (at the Law Enforcement Center) is a great help for my students.”