Tired of seeing colleagues suffer, this cop created a help line for first responders
Staffed by volunteers, the network offers help by phone 24 hours a day
Over a 30-year career in policing, Dave McLennan saw the toll the job was taking on many of his colleagues.
He saw officers with failed marriages, others struggling with substance abuse and mental health challenges.
How to get help
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"Looking back now, I know that these were people who were suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and other issues that they didn't get help for," he said. "Back in the day, it was a 'suck it up' mentality. You dealt with things and you didn't express how you were feeling. You just kept on going."
In this environment some officers never got the help they needed, and those loses weighed on McLennan.
"I certainly had fellow officers who took their own lives," he said.
McLennan spent his career in uniformed patrol and as an investigator with the Peel Regional Police, a large force that serves Brampton and Mississauga.
Back in the day, it was a 'suck it up' mentality. You dealt with things and you didn't express how you were feeling- Dave McLennan
In 2016, while winding up his career, he began to make contacts and lay the groundwork for a support network he hoped would ensure no first responders would go without the support they needed.
The result is Boots on The Ground, a free peer-to-peer support network for police and other first responders that launched last week.
Staffed by about 70 volunteers, Boots on The Ground provides one-on-one, toll-free support by telephone 24-hours a day, seven days a week for first-responders and corrections officers across Ontario.
McLennan acknowledges that many employers of first responders provide excellent peer support, and there's a trend toward enhancing those services. For example, London police recently moved to hire an in-house psychologist.
This summer, the OPP announced changes to its mental health support system in response to the suicides of three officers.
Support by employers often under-used
But McLennan said many police officers and other first responders are reluctant to seek help from their employer. Boots on the Ground is not affiliated with any first responder employer or union.
"There are organizations out there that have very good peer support programs, I'm not knocking what's out there," he said. "But there's a certain percentage of the population where they won't go to an employee-based assistance program for fears of stigma."
Boots on the Ground volunteers get four days of training in peer support and suicide prevention. They are also sworn to confidentiality.
Also on the roster a clinical psychologist with a specialty in helping first responders.
McLennan says in cases where the caller requires help that goes beyond volunteers' training, they will be referred to professional help.
"We're there more to listen," said McLennan. "To get a conversation going with someone who can maybe relate to the things they're going through, then we can refer them to professionals."
In the Greater Toronto Area, Boots on the Ground provides in-person visits where it's requested. It's a service McLennan hopes to expand to other parts of the province. For now, it's funded through private sponsorships.
For now, McLennan is working to enhance the telephone support service and build up the ranks of its volunteers.
He says there is no shortage of people coming forward to help.
"There's a huge willingness to help," said McLennan. "It's amazing. They understand there's a real need."