Published on April 6th, 2017 | from CAMH

Behind The Badge: Depression and the Police Service

By Dr. Katy Kamkar, Clinical Psychologist, Work, Stress and Health Program

This year’s World Health Day is focused on depression, which affects 350 million people across the world, and is the leading cause of disability. This figure includes people who are tasked with safeguarding society – first responders like paramedics, fire fighters, and police officers among others.

We often hear of the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on our first responders and police, but we don’t hear about the prevalence of depression, which is often not discussed openly. Both PTSD and depression are part of Operational Stress Injuries (OSI), which describes any persistent psychological difficulty that results from operational or service related duties. OSI includes depression, anxiety disorders, adjustment disorder, PTSD, substance use disorders, grief reaction related to loss, injury, pain, sleep-related conditions and other conditions that may interfere with daily functioning.

In previous blogs, I discussed how stress can affect the mental health of our police officers. The day-to-day pressures of police work put officers at increased risk for OSI. Stress can have an effect cognitively, emotionally, physiologically or behaviourally. When the stress turns chronic, vulnerability increases and our tolerance to stress goes down, increasing our risk to physical health and mental health problems.

Signs and Symptoms of Depression

Depression can take its toll if left untreated, and can be compounded when police use unhealthy coping mechanisms that can compromise their performance on duty, such as alcohol and drugs, or turn to gambling or other risky behaviours. Depression has been found to increase the risk for PTSD, Anxiety Disorders and Addiction. As well, PTSD has often been found to be accompanied by Depression and the two overlapping conditions further worsen the overall functioning and quality of life and increase the risk of suicide. Thus, prevention and early intervention are essential in order to avoid complication due to concurrent issues.

Police officers are exposed to a unique set of challenges in their day-to-day duties that can easily facilitate mental health concerns. Identifying depression, reaching out for help and finding the right interventions can mean a shorter path to wellness.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Depression in the police service can include:

  • Low mood, mood irritability and feelings of anger
  • Feeling helpless and powerless
  • Self-isolation and withdrawing from other police officers
  • Feeling emotionally disengaged or distanced from others or loved ones
  • Feeling exhausted and reduced motivation or reduced self-confidence – These are often signs of occupational burnout
  • Increased anxiety and worries and negativity and suspiciousness
  • Low energy
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Difficulty making decisions, focusing on the task or concentrating
  • Making mistakes or more errors
  • Increase in substance such as alcohol and engaging in reckless driving
  • Changes in appetite and giving up on healthy diet
  • Changes in sleep and bad dreams
  • Low self-esteem
  • Work productivity going down; relationship strains with supervisors, increased absenteeism or sick leave
  • Having more problems at home and relationship strains
  • Having suicidal ideation

The DSM-5 outlines the following diagnostic criteria for Major Depressive Disorder. It’s important to acknowledge that depression is NOT a weakness. It is an illness, which no one is immune to. This includes members of the police service. For some police officers, depression can sometimes be a difficult notion to accept, but it’s a reality that if left unchecked, can have deep repercussions on themselves, their families and the people they are sworn to protect.

Treatment and Care

Effective, evidence-based treatment for depression is available, and research has shown that workers who suffer from depression and receive treatment are more productive than those who do not receive treatment.

Peer support is also helpful. Having a peer to talk to helps us to deal better with pressure and alleviates feelings of loneliness or isolation. Many leading police organizations have family support systems in place, such as “Beyond the Blue” created by the Calgary Police Service and now adopted in other jurisdictions such as York Region and Toronto. We know from experience that the family tends to always notice first when a member suffers from mental health difficulties.

It is such 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 also 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.

To our hard-working police officers: Please do not suffer in silence – seek help if you feel like you need it. The earlier you seek help, the better the therapy outcome and the sooner you can regain your well-being and quality of life.

In recent times, more police officers have come forward seeking help with mental health issues, and we need to be better prepared to provide support. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength, courage and resilience.


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