Stigma of mental illness among police officers waning, say experts

Police chiefs, officers and mental health experts from across Canada are in Gatineau this week, discussing ways to better support staff dealing with traumatic situations.

Sharing stories of trauma 'a sign of strength, not weakness' for officers at Gatineau conference

Mental health experts and police from across the country are in Gatineau this week, talking about the issues faced by front-line workers. (Laurie Trudel/Radio-Canada)

Mental health experts and law enforcement officials say "more and more" police officers are sharing personal stories about how they deal with the daily trauma their jobs entail, but that there's still a lot of work to be done. 

Police chiefs, officers and mental health experts are gathering in Gatineau this week for a conference about treating and preventing the anxiety and depression police across the country often face. 

"In policing we see a whole range of situations," said Terry Coleman, the former police chief in Moose Jaw, Sask.

"They tend to accumulate over time, particularly for some people, and end up with very serious consequences." 

Over the course of his career Coleman said he saw staff deal with a broad range of issues from the everyday trauma of traffic incidents to the suicide of a fellow officer. 

"We can all be affected by it," he said. 

Police still harbour 'tough image'

It's been three years since the Mental Health Commission of Canada first teamed up with the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs to hold this conference.

Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the commission, said things have changed for the better. 

"Initially, when we raised the whole idea of looking at the mental health of police officers a few years back it was met with some skepticism," she said. 

"Surprisingly it hasn't been as difficult as we may have thought." 
More and more officers are coming forward with their stories of tackling mental health issues, says Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. (Laurie Trudel/Radio-Canada)

In the first year, Bradley said her organization planned only one session and was "quite surprised" by the level of interest.

"One on one, I had police officers come to me in between sessions and say 'Thank you. I'm so glad that we're talking about this,'" she said.

But in a career where people "pride themselves on a tough image," Bradley said encouraging people to discuss their emotions is still a challenge. 

Supportive workplace the only solution

Coleman agrees that stigma, while still a major issue, has been receding in recent years.

"It's still a barrier and we've still got to be concerned about it," he said. 

"A supportive organization — which sounds rather clichéd — that's what it requires. All the way from the chief, all the way through the organization, people that are supportive of people that are having trouble dealing with certain situations." 
Over two days, experts and police officers with lived experience will discuss how to better treat and prevent mental health problems among front-line workers. (Laurie Trudel/Radio-Canada)

For many officers mental health issues are not spurred by a single traumatic experience, he adds, but by a slow buildup of issues.

"One that is very traumatic for many people now is dealing with situations of child abuse," he said. "If you're doing that for a year or two, it accumulates."

Some police forces are tackling that problem by screening officers assigned to child pornography units to make sure they're well-suited to that kind of high-anxiety posting and limiting the length of time officers hold those positions.

'A sign of strength, not weakness'

Increasingly, Coleman said police forces are recognizing the issue and addressing it with referral programs and on-site counselling services.

In 2014, the high-profile death of an Ottawa officer to suicide raised calls for aggressive action to address this issue. 

Then last year, the Ottawa Police Service announced it would hire two full-time mental health support workers

'The big barrier is the stigma,' says Terry Coleman, the former chief of police for Moose Jaw, Sask. (Radio-Canada)

Bradley said what's really making a difference is that "more and more" officers are coming forward to share their stories, "which actually then gives the freedom and permission to others to talk about it."

It's time, she said, to show that seeking help is "a sign of strength, not weakness." 

Suppressing these strong emotions is never a suitable solution, she adds. 

"I'm not saying that it could result in disastrous situations, but it is dangerous to their own health and potentially those around them to not deal with the psychological component," she said. 

"In the same way that we wouldn't expect a police officer to go to work with a broken leg, we shouldn't expect them to go to work with a broken mind."

The 'Mental Health of Police Personnel' conference wraps up Wednesday.

With files from Lorian Belanger