Nova Scotia

Police need more resources to protect mental health of officers, say advocates

More resources and better treatment are needed to protect the mental health of police officers, say advocates. Halifax Regional Police has seen an increase recently in the number of officers making mental health claims and missing time on the job, according to the department.

Halifax is studying increase in mental health claims by municipal police officers

Advocates say more resources and better treatment are needed to protect the mental health of officers. (Robert Short/CBC)

More resources and better treatment are needed to protect the mental health of police officers, say advocates.

Halifax Regional Police has seen an increase recently in the number of officers making mental health claims and missing time on the job, according to the department.

The Board of Police Commissioners directed municipal staff this month to study the causes of the increase and possible solutions. 

Halifax Regional Police won't say exactly how many officers are making mental health claims, but the union representing its officers says they've been 'running lean' for too long. (Halifax Regional Police)

Halifax Regional Police declined an interview request.

Chief Dan Kinsella previously said the department won't share exactly how many officers are making mental health claims due to privacy and security policies.

"I didn't necessarily feel as though we had sufficient information to understand both the scope of the problem, the contributing causes and the possible solutions," Commissioner Harry Critchley said at a board meeting this month.

Critchley forwarded the motion calling for the study. He said he's asked HRP to provide more information on several occasions so the board can make better decisions during budget deliberations.

Regional council initially rejected this year's police budget before approving a revised version that didn't include a $2-million increase. The final budget allocates money for an additional 18 staff members, including 12 patrol officers.

Budget deliberations followed the release of a report on defunding police in Halifax. The report makes 36 recommendations on reforming police and redirecting resources to areas like mental health response, traffic enforcement and sex assault reporting. 

Timely and effective treatment

The president of the union representing Halifax police says the service is operating shorthanded and that compounds an already stressful job for officers.

Sgt. Dean Stienburg also won't say how many officers are on leave due to their mental health. He said it's not a new issue and it's only been made worse by the pandemic.

"We've run too lean for too long," Stienburg said.  He said the study is a positive start but it's not the only answer.

"I think one of the biggest challenges is getting timely and effective treatment for our members," Stienburg said.

He said by the time a problem is detected it can be too late. 

"Things have progressed with their illness to where it becomes much more difficult to get them back," he said. "We need a pre-emptive element to this and it's something we need help from at every level of government."

Halifax Regional Police Association president Dean Stienburg says officers do not have access to proper mental health treatment. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

That element doesn't exist in Nova Scotia, Stienburg said. He said the most successful programs are out of province so officers must travel for treatment.

"That's very problematic because once they come back it's very difficult to support them," he said.

Stienburg said he wants to see an intensive treatment program developed locally where officers can visit the service promptly and be able to receive followup support.

No one and done solution

There are hundreds of programs in Canada to treat the mental health of police officers, one researcher says, but the challenge is treating someone who is continuously sent back into stressful environments. 

"We're asking them to put themselves back in harm's way, mentally, a second, a third, a fourth time for 25, 30 years," said Dr. Nick Carleton, scientific director of the Canadian Institute of Public Safety Research and Treatment.

"We really need to understand there's not going to be a one-and-done for supporting their mental health."

A 2017 study by the institute shows police officers are more likely to experience mental health disorders than other first responders.

Nick Carleton is also a psychology professor at the University of Regina. (CBC)

Nearly 37 per cent of municipal police officers in Canada and more than 50 per cent of RCMP officers screened positive for mental health disorders, the study says.

"It's very high," Carleton said. "It's certainly orders of magnitude higher than what we see for the general population."

Roughly 10 per cent of the general population are diagnosed with mental health disorders, the research says. Screenings detect potential for illness by measuring various symptoms and are different from a diagnosis. 

RCMP study

According to Veterans Affairs Canada, more than 40 per cent of long-term disability claims for RCMP in 2014 were by officers suffering from mental health disorders after they left the force.

Carleton helped develop a 10-year study for the RCMP that began in 2019. It's tracking cadets through training and the first five years of their career to identify the causes of mental health disorders and create evidence-based interventions.

"We need to provide ongoing support I think from training all the way past into retirement," Carleton said.

Increases in mental health claims by police officers could be tied to the pandemic as well as the ways police have been portrayed in the media lately, Carleton said. He thinks it's more likely the issue has always existed but went under addressed.

Carleton said conversations around defunding police are complex and reducing mental health resources isn't the solution.

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