Published on October 19th, 2016 | from CAMH
Behind the Badge: Mental Health and the Police Service
Dr. Katy Kamkar, Clinical Psychologist, Work, Stress and Health Program |
When you think of the police and mental health issues, your mind may go to media reports of a police interaction with a person in mental health crisis that hasn’t ended well.
I have a different experience: I am a CAMH Clinical Psychologist who treats police officers with mental health issues.
Did you know that police and first responders have more than twice the risk of developing PTSD when compared to the general population, due to repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of traumatic events? Here’s some of what I’ve learned while providing clinical care.
Stigma in the World of Police
Police officers are faced with difficult scenarios each day, often requiring decisive judgment. Police culture, the nature of the profession, and the role to “serve and protect” the community project unrealistic, often unattainable expectations.
The stigma surrounding mental illness also plays a role, and it tends to be even more predominant in the police world, taking its toll on the men and women in blue.
In the past few months, I have been working closely with Badge of Life Canada (BOLC) as a Medical Advisor to the Board of Directors. BOLC is a peer-led organization working to raise awareness and provide support to first responders, in hopes that we can improve outcomes for these men and women. In recent times, more police officers have come forward seeking help about mental health issues, and we need to be better prepared to provide support.
Normalizing the talk around mental health issues or addiction is essential, as is reminding police officers that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength, courage and resilience. For many, this has been a difficult concept to accept. Police officers are seen as authority figures, often leading to the misconception that they cannot or should not show any signs of illness or vulnerability.
It is important for both the public and police to understand that being an authority figure and seeking help are not mutually exclusive. A police officer can suffer from depression, seek treatment, and work concurrently – just like any other person.
Just as the “toughen up” or “suck it up” attitude cannot be used in the case of a broken arm, we cannot use it in mental health either. A broken arm needs medical treatment to heal. Mental health problems need treatment for recovery.
Do Police “Sign Up” to be Traumatized?
First responders often hear comments telling them that they ‘signed up’ for problems by virtue of the profession they went into. I get upset when I hear this insensitive perception, because it is a very real concern to people I serve.
I have seen how harmful it is to perpetuate silent suffering and self-isolation. It delays or prevents the recognition of a mental health problem. By the time treatment is sought, the mental health condition has worsened or has led to turning to addictive substances as a way of coping.
Stresses related to Police Duties
In addition to having to face daily challenges and significant life events like the rest of us, police officers also have to deal with stressors inherent to their daily duties.
Fear, anxiety, sadness, guilt, grief – these are all emotions that many of us will go through, whether or not we wear the badge, but when coupled with experiences of violence, they can be almost impossible to shake. I commonly hear from my clients that certain traumatic events (e.g., a child’s death) that might have occurred over 10 years ago continue to affect them psychologically and emotionally, causing them to have distressing memories and bad dreams, leaving them feeling distressed when reminded of the trauma.
It is important to know that trauma reactions are normal shortly after a traumatic event. However if the symptoms increase over a prolonged period of time, cause increased distress or interference in functioning or affect daily work and home-life, then it’s important to seek help.
I have seen and heard police discussing their fear, frustration and anxiety over hearing negative media coverage, negative public opinion and scrutiny over the public’s confidence in them, in particular following incidents involving alleged excessive brutality by police, alleged violation of civil rights and the alleged use of excessive force, sometimes involving death of a citizen or an officer. Within my work, I have seen police officers not only telling me about, but also working on reassuring people that the incidents that have happened are not reflective of the entire Service. I constantly hear their emotional distress and pain when they perceive otherwise from the public.
One other aspect that tends to get ignored are the personal relationships and personal lives of police officers. Shift work, overtime and high work pressure tend to place a strain on relationships, due to limited time and activities spent with family. Mood irritability, sleep disturbance and high work stress tend to cause interpersonal conflict at home, in turn, causing more stress at work, leading to a vicious cycle. Police often complain of work life imbalance as result of work hours and work demands.
Impact of Stress and Common Mental Health Problems
Police work does increase the risk of psychological work-related injuries. Occupational burnout and exhaustion result in reduced motivation, care or passion for the work. For others, it can cause feelings of helplessness or powerlessness, resulting in emotional disengagement. Depression, substance misuse as a coping mechanism and Occupational Stress Injuries (OSI) – which are persistent psychological difficulties resulting from operational or service-related duties – are also common.
I consider it an honour and a privilege to have the chance to work with first responders and police – something I’ve done for over a decade. I have seen the genuine level of devotion, passion and care among our police officers, and I have also seen what incredible human beings they are.
This is a particularly important time for police officers to step up and show that they can serve and protect, but also be caring and compassionate. But it starts with letting go of shame and stigma, identifying any underlying issues that can affect and impact their work, and seeking help when it’s needed.
If you’re a first responder looking for help, here are a variety of Mental Health Websites and Resources. Please know that you are not alone; we are here to help you!
- Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
- Work, Stress and Health Program & Occupational Stress and Trauma Recovery Clinic (CAMH): (416) 535-8501 ext. 77350
- CAMH Website
- Badge of Life Canada (BOLC)
- The Tema Conter Memorial Trust
- Toronto Police – Psychological Services
- The HEART Group
- Portico Network (Canada’s Mental Health and Addiction Network, powered by CAMH)
- Connex Ontario (Information about mental health, problem gambling, drug and alcohol). 1-866-531-2600 24 hours and day, seven days a week
- Telehealth Ontario at 1-866-797-0000
- Report of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security