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 finally hitting rock bottom and seeking help.
The culture of policing has historically been to sweep mental health issues under the rug. But in recent decades, 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 last year. The report, In the Line of Duty, made 34 recommendations to the provincial police force, including the need to confront persistent stigma against OSIs, increasing psychological services available to officers, and to develop comprehensive programs to handle those issues.
Now, almost one year after the ombudsman’s audit, 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, consultations with other policing agencies and the introduction of a "lunch and learn" series, hosted by the OPP’s operational stress injuries working group.
Inspector Leslie Craig, team lead for the working group, said 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," she said.
Policing in particular poses unique risks. Kathy Jurgens, the national program manager for the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mental Health Works program said police face dangerous scenarios most of us never see in our lifetime as part of their day-to-day jobs — which pose heightened risks.
"Mental health has been one of the last frontiers for a stigmatized population. The stigma is a societal stigma that we need to bust and break down, and 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. They kind of collide," Jurgens said. "We have an assumption about police officers — that they’re screened, that they’re young, they’re healthy, they’re fit, they’re invincible. And we tend to realize ongoing stress and strains can impact someone’s health."
Knowler agreed, saying emergency responders also have to deal with an attitude which perpetuates the notion that 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 said, adding that while that attitude may have been acceptable 20 or 40 years ago, officers are realizing they are mere mortals.
"Officers coming in now are a lot more cognizant of the fact that you are only human," Knowler said. "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."
And as physical injuries go, so goes psychological injuries. On a corporate level, police services need to really be supporting their officers in terms of needing accommodation just as they would a physical injury, Knowler said.
"If you break your ankle or if you hurt your back while chasing someone on the job, it’s easy to see," he explained. "When someone’s got an OSI or a psychological injury, it’s invisible, you can’t see it."
Though OSIs or PTSD come stapled with stigma and are seemingly invisible conditions, Jurgens offered signs supervisors can look out for as clues to a possible problem. 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.
As part of her Mental Health Works program, Jurgens said the first step towards an effective mental health strategy is training and education for upper management, as well as expanding support systems beyond the employee assistance program (EAP) and family assistance.
"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," Jurgens explained. "What we try to do is help them consider a strategic approach and take a bite out of this huge project. We always recommend starting with senior leaders and taking a governance approach. From that we like to train managers and supervisors and then bring it down to an employee level. Within the OPP there are certain hot pocket areas that seem to be more of a struggle. They need to consider the content — it’s not a blame shame approach."
In order to mitigate some of those concerns, Craig said the OPP has expanded its EAP by introducing 25 trained officers and seven regional team leads to serve as peer supports.
"Whether it’s a work-related stress — or, let’s face it, we have a lot of stress in our personal lives as well, and the boundaries overlap — stress goes home and stress from home comes to work," said Craig. "So those EAP members are there to support officers, civilian members, retired members, auxiliary members and also family members. 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 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 said.
"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. In my mind, when you tackle the issue of stigma then all of the other things will domino into place. We need to continue to educate and talk about occupational stress injuries, mental illness as a whole," said Craig. "To me, stigma reduction is one of the biggest things. Because once we start to chip away at that, then everything else will start to fall in place. 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."