Having a best friend die in a collision would be tough for anyone — even more tough if you are the police officer responding to the car crash, only to have your friend die in your arms.
Staff Sgt. Brian Knowler lived through that traumatizing experience on a miserably rainy night in 2004. As a 15-year veteran of an Ontario police service, Knowler suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and an operational stress injury, which he buried until he says he finally hit rock bottom and sought help.
The culture of policing has historically been to sweep mental health issues under the rug. But recently, the spotlight has been focused on how operational stress injuries (OSIs) and mental health can affect the well-being of an individual.
That concept was echoed by André Marin, Ontario’s ombudsman, who conducted an audit of the Ontario Provincial Police’s (OPP) mental health policies in 2012. The report, In the Line of Duty, made 34 recommendations to the provincial police force, including confronting persistent stigma against OSIs, increasing psychological services available to officers, and developing comprehensive programs to handle those issues.
Now, the OPP has come back with a report on its progress. That includes making headway on the number of people accessing internal and external support provided by the OPP, consulting with other policing agencies, and introducing a lunch-and-learn series, hosted by the OPP’s operational stress injuries working group.
Inspector Leslie Craig, team lead for the working group, says the agency has made significant strides when it comes to dealing with the mental health of its officers — but there is still a long way to go in terms of training and educating the force.
“This isn’t something that’s going to be wrapped up in short order. This is something that’s going to take a long time. It’s going to be constant, it’s going to be ongoing,” says Craig, who is based in Barrie, Ont.
Police officers not only face heightened risks in their day-to-day jobs, but they also face an additional stigma when it comes to mental health, says Kathy Jurgens, the national program director for the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mental Health Works program in Toronto.
“Policing, the OPP, has a unique challenge because not only do we have preconceived ideas of people with mental health issues, we certainly have preconceived ideas of what a police officer should be, too, (and) they kind of collide,” she says. “We have an assumption about police officers — that they’re screened, that they’re young, they’re healthy, they’re fit, they’re invincible.”
Knowler agrees, saying emergency responders also have to deal with an attitude that perpetuates the notion if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
“(With) any paramilitary, firefighting, even paramedical thing, you’re going to see horrible things. And part of the job is dealing with it. And if you can’t deal with it and you have these strong psychological and emotional reactions to it, then you’re not cut out for it,” he says, adding while that attitude may have been acceptable years ago, it is starting to change.
“Officers coming in now are a lot more cognizant of the fact that you are only human,” Knowler says. “These things do happen to you no matter of the fact that you wear armour and a gun belt and you have a dangerous job. If you don’t recognize these things openly, then it can harm you as much as a physical injury can.”
On a corporate level, police services need to really be supporting their officers in terms of accommodation for psychological injuries just as they would physical injuries, Knowler says.
“If you break your ankle or if you hurt your back while chasing someone on the job, it’s easy to see,” he says. “When someone’s got an OSI or a psychological injury, it’s invisible, you can’t see it.”
There are some signs supervisors can look out for as clues to a possible psychological issue. That includes general shifts in behaviour and attitude, such as being quick to anger and rapid mood changes. Then, a conversation should be had to determine whether the employee is in need of further assistance, says Jurgens.
The first step towards an effective mental health strategy is training and education for upper management, then bringing it down through managers, supervisors and finally employees.
“We really are trying to get most organizations to look at these issues from a more strategic approach. Training is great, but if it’s just a one-off training, you’re not going to see a lot of movement or impact,” says Jurgens. “What we try to do is help them consider a strategic approach and take a bite out of this huge project. They need to consider the content — it’s not a blame (and) shame approach.”
To further support employees, the OPP has expanded its employee assistance program (EAP) by introducing 25 trained officers and seven regional team leads to serve as peer supports.
“Those EAP members are there to support officers, civilian members, retired members, auxiliary members and also family members,” says Craig. “Basically they’re there as a one-on-one support to listen to the employee. It’s a confidential peer that that member hopefully feels comfortable to reach out to and say, ‘You know, I’m not feeling myself.’”
Until the overall societal barriers of mental health are broken down, there is still a long way to go, Craig says.
“This is not unique to the OPP and not unique to policing and not unique to employers, but stigma is a very strong and negative issue to tackle,” she says. “Once you create that environment where people feel comfortable stepping forward with no fear of any reprisal for doing so, then everything else — the training, the education, the processes — will naturally fall into place.”
Sabrina Nanji writes for Canadian Safety Reporter, a sister publication of COS.