RCMP plan to launch study on operational stress, PTSD in Mounties

The RCMP is seeking a team of researchers to study the physical and mental markers of post-traumatic stress disorders in officers.

Nearly half of new long-term disability claims in 2016 cited mental health issues

Police officers have to deal with traumatic situations on a near daily basis, which over a career can lead to the development of operational stress injuries, like post-traumatic stress disorders, says B.C-based psychologist Dr. Jeff Morley. (Chris Stanford/Canadian Press)

Canada's national police force is looking to launch a study into the mental and physiological markers for depression, addictions and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in its officers.

Details of the study are outlined in a request for proposal listed on the federal government's buy and sell website, which shows the RCMP is looking to hire a multidisciplinary team of experts, including psychologists, clinicians and psychiatrists, to conduct the research. 

"These specialists will collaborate with the RCMP starting at the cadet level, and then conduct a longitudinal experimental study that will follow those cadets over the next 10 years," Cpl. Annie Delisle, a spokesperson for the RCMP, wrote in an email response to CBC News.

CBC was told an interview could not be accommodated by the time of deadline. 

New treatments

Researchers would be required to focus on identifying the psychological and physiological markers for operational stress injuries like PTSD in officers. 

"This research will be used to develop innovative evidence-based interventions to increase resiliency and to deliver preemptive interventions to protect the mental health of police officers," according to Delisle.

The RCMP says despite current strategies to prevent mental health issues, it continues to lose officers to stress and trauma related injuries. 

In 2016, the RCMP said 249 new long-term disability claims were filed and of those 46.9 per cent cited mental health issues. In 2014, that figure was 41.7 per cent.

RCMP officers examine the wreckage of a plane that crashed in Richmond, B.C., in July, killing two people. RCMP officers have increasingly been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, some afflicted after witnessing scenes like these. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Research 'long overdue'

B.C's Dr. Jeff Morley, a retired Mountie turned registered psychologist who works with first responders and members of the Canadian Forces and Veteran Affairs Canada, welcomes news of the study.

He said the psychological toll police work has on individuals is well known and that research of this scope is "long overdue."

"When we hire new cops they're pretty healthy. They've got physical tests, psychological tests, they're polygraphed, they're background checked, I mean arguably they're pretty squeaky clean, right? And we know they're not going to stay that way.

'We know that some police officers, you know, are going to develop PTSD, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, addictions ... Rarely, in my experience, has that happened in just a moment. It usually evolves over time throughout the course of one's career," Morley explained.

"The more information that we can obtain to better understand how police work affects employees, officers over time, the better."  

He said current rates of operational stress injuries among members is unknown due to a lack of formal research on the subject.

Citing different studies done in the U.S and Canada, he said 20 per cent is a conservative estimate for how many members experience mental health issues.

960 volunteers needed

According to proposal, the study would take place at the RCMP training depot in Regina and the findings be funnelled to Ottawa.

In order to "obtain statistically useful data," it requires 960 cadets be recruited to participate within three years from when the contract for the study is awarded. 

The RCMP reports 1,110 cadets are trained in the depot each year. That breaks down into 34 troops per year that can be comprised of up to 32 cadets.

Once recruited, cadets would be divided into a control and experimental group.

When we hire new cops they're pretty healthy. They've got physical tests, psychological tests, they're polygraphed, they'rebackground checked, arguably they'repretty squeaky clean, right? And we know they're not going to stay that way.- Dr. Jeff Morley

Those placed in the experimental group would receive "evidence-based interventions," such as cognitive behavioural therapy, throughout the study "for increasing resiliency and reducing psychological risk," to stress injures, the statement reads.

Before any study could begin, the RCMP's human resources research review board would need to sign off on the team's research plan in order to ensure it meets ethical standards.

Start at cadet training

Cadets must undergo a six-month training regime before they are formally accepted into the RCMP and deployed as sworn members. If a cadet does not pass training, they will be disqualified from the study.

The RCMP specifies that participating cadets must be psychologically assessed by the research team within a week of arriving at the depot for training, and once again before they are deployed.

Once cadets leave the academy, each will be expected to participate the study for up to five years, unless they leave the RCMP or decide to withdraw themselves. 

"Participants will complete regular self-report assessments, provide physiological data, as well as participate in an annual psychological assessment," according to the project's statement of work.

"An efficient way in which to collect and transmit data [physiological, self-report assessments, etc.] would be through a smartphone or similar mobile device."

The RCMP states researchers would have to supply 960 mobile devices, one for each participant. 

Physical measurements

The study would see officers strap on some form of wearable technology in order for researchers to monitor and record their heart rate variability and possibly sleep pattern and breathing. 

Morely said the plan to track an officer's psychological state over time is wise.

"This is what we know about trauma. PTSD is not just like a problem or symptoms that just affect one's cognitive functioning. It certainly affects our emotions, but also sleep, heart rate, changes in cardiovascular symptoms.

"Many people with PTSD have chronically spiked adrenaline, severe difficulties sleeping."

The more data, the better

The research team will be expected to submit regular progress reports, data findings, and training recommendations to the RCMP.

The project's statement of work specifies recommendations must address whether the psychological practices taught to members in the experiment group should continue and if the training impacts their mental health. 

Saying whether regular psychological assessments should continue and how the RCMP can decrease the severity and prevalence of operational stress injuries are also expected in the final report.

"The more data we can have to better understand [post-traumatic stress disorder], may not necessarily prevent it at 100 per cent for sure, but may equip people to better recognize early warning signs in themselves and others," Morley said.

"Exposure to trauma cannot be prevented, that's part of the job," he said.