mental health

Keeping Ghosts at Bay: Police Officers & Mental Health

I am a Police Officer.

I have struggled with mental health.

At the end of 2016 where are we with police officers and mental health? I’m not talking about police officers responding to calls for assistance in dealing with a mental health crisis, I’m talking about police officers and the scope of their war with their own mental health. As a police officer I haven’t been trained to deal with my own mental health, or the possibility that a co-worker, recruit, Corporal, Sargent, or otherwise might experience mental health issues. However, these struggles are real, and they are struggles that are happening.

In 2008 I walked out of basic training with a badge and a copy of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement. I was equipped with a flimsy understanding that mental health was important and something to be taken care of. What I experienced in the field was dark humour used to keep ghosts at bay, and I must confess to it working on the surface and in the moment, but out of the moment and below the surface what lingered?

When the dark humour passes how do you talk about it, and who is left to talk to?

For reasons that I am not qualified to talk about or to speculate on police officers province wide, Canada wide, are taking their own lives. An article in the Ottawa Sun stated, “Less than three months into 2016, five Canadian police officers have taken their own lives” (March 17, 2016 J.E. Laucius). CTV new Calgary can be quoted stating, “In 2015, 39 first responders committed suicide in Canada, and there were 27 suicide deaths the year before” (April 4, 2016 C. Roebuck). As of July 28, 2016, “The Tema Conter Memorial Trust, which provides support to public safety and military personnel dealing with occupational stress injuries, counts 30 first responders – police, fire, ambulance and prison workers – who have taken their own lives so far this year. The trust cannot say for sure that all of the suicides were related to occupational stress. But it also acknowledges that some suicides of first responders are not included in its count and the actual toll is much higher” (G. Galloway, The Globe & Mail).

When it comes to our own mental health, and our mental health as a group, we are at a loss. Drawing from my own experience, since my own trouble started with my mental health, friends/co-workers that I have known for years have melted away, some completely and others comfortable only inquiring about me through my spouse. In some instances I have been engaged in conversation with someone, and they have waited for me to leave the room before asking my spouse how I am doing. I have received calls from officers-in-charge, who have been instructed to contact me, and the discomfort in their voice as they race to the end of their scripted conversation with me is painful. Gradually it became clear that how to communicate with me was an issue when the topic of mental health was one that could surface because mental health is a topic that is uncharted as a comfortable area of conversation.

At first I took these things personally, but I realized that I probably would have responded in the same manner at an earlier point in my life and to some degree I may still feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t until I became mentally unhealthy that my eyes opened in a new way. Up until this point I had been a girl in blue running in to help save the day while ignoring my own warning signs, ignoring anything that might be uncomfortable and unknown. I believe an avenue of communication needs to be introduced to help with this area that becomes a bit of a communication breakdown.

Interestingly, the opening statement in an article on mental health instruction for police officers was, “The key to lessening the stigma associated with mental illness is to talk about it, says Ontario Police College instructor Irene Barath.” (April 6, 2016 B-A MacEachern). The article goes on to state that, “By focusing on reducing the stigma around mental illness, reducing barriers to care, creating a common language and promoting resilience skills, Ms Barath aims to, ‘provide police service members the resources to look after themselves,’…” This article is talking about a program called R2MR, or Road to Mental Readiness Training. A program that the Mental Health Commission of Canada can be quoted as stating, “Some of Canada’s largest police departments are either offering training or scheduled to begin. These include municipalities like Vancouver, Edmonton, Peel, York, Toronto, Niagara, Ottawa, and Quebec City” (2016).

“October 2015 marked the national launch of the RCMP’s Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR) wprkshops, which are mandatory for all employees and supervisors” (http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/fam/ptsp-tspt-eng.htm). An interesting article to read in regards to the RCMP launch of the program is called On the road to wellness: RCMP program promotes mental health and it can be found at http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/en/gazette/road-wellness.

What is R2MR?

R2MR is a training program with three levels: One for police officers and civilian employees, one for leadership, and one for trainers.

R2MR’s Primary Course Goals: To improve short-term performance and long-term mental health outcomes as well as reduce stigma and other barriers to care and encourage early access to help.

R2MR Leadership Course Goals: To provide the tools and resources required to manage and support employees who may be experiencing a mental health problem or mental illness. To assist supervisors in maintaining their own mental health as well as promoting positive mental health in their employees.

R2MR Mental Health Continuum: The centrepiece of the program is a simple four colour chart that helps individual assess their mental health and wellbeing.

Evaluation: The Mental Health Commission of Canada has been conducting a formal evaluation of the program.

Project History: R2MR has a solid foundation in mental health education, stigma reduction and resilience.

This program sounds like it has some great things built into the training.

Knowing that mental health is important and being aware of the scope of duties that can bring challenges for remaining mentally healthy is one thing, and having tools to impart and exchange information comfortably without stigma or barriers…is another. At the end of 2016, although we are slowly moving forward with our knowledge and understanding about police officers and mental health, we still have a way to go before we reach a place of stigma reduction, reduced barriers to care, and create a common language and resilience skills. That said, it is heartening to know that programs are being rolled out, implemented, and embraced that are working to establish those vary goals!

By Shari Marshall – 2016

“UPDATE: Since 2014, 176 Canadian public safety and military personnel have died by suicide.

2016: 46 first responders and 14 military members have died by suicide

2015: 51 first responders and 17 military members died by suicide.

Between April 29 and December 31, 2014: 27 first responders died by suicide. In 2014: 21 military personnel died by suicide. (http://www.tema.ca/inthenews as quoted on December 11, 2016)

Link to the The Tema Conter Memorial Trust http://www.tema.ca/

Feature image taken from http://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/English/catalyst-jan-2015-r2mr

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