University of Regina study aimed at improving mental health for police, emergency workers around world

Nearly 1,000 RCMP recruits are involved in a University of Regina study that aims to measure the effectiveness of preventative mental health training. Its creators say it could one day impact police officers, firefighters and other safety personnel around the world.

Nearly 1,000 RCMP recruits participating in 10-year study

The RCMP is participating in a University of Regina study to evaluate preventative training that may better protect officers from traumatic stress injuries. (Troy Fleece/The Canadian Press)

Researchers conducting a study in Saskatchewan believe it could have a ripple effect all over the world.

The University of Regina and the RCMP have teamed up to look at how officers are trained to avoid PTSI, or post traumatic stress injuries. It will involve nearly 1,000 RCMP cadets, who will provide data from recruitment through the first five years of their career. 

Nicholas Carleton, a professor of psychiatry at the U of R, is leading the study and has been working on it since 2015. He said there is growing awareness of the importance of mental health, but treating officers after they experience trauma is unsustainable and inefficient.

On the other hand, the effectiveness of preventative training programs has not been adequately tested.

"You've got more than 200, nearly 300 different programs that are being offered to various public safety personnel as programs that are designed to protect their mental health, but there is almost none of them, just a handful, that have any research evidence behind them at all," he said.

A head shot of professor Nicholas Carleton. He is wearing a black suit, white shirt, and patterned light blue tie. He stands before a white background.
Nicholas Carleton is a professor of Psychology in the University of Regina's Faculty of Arts. (Submitted by University of Regina)

In June, a new "enhanced" training regimen building on previous techniques was put in place for the cadets involved in the study. The study could run as long as 10 years and is longitudinal in structure, meaning cadets entered into it on their first day at the RCMP's training Depot in Regina and will remain participants through the first five years of their career once they become active duty officers. That will allow for continual assessment of the training's efficacy as they experience traumatic events on the job.

"Folks like you and I are going to be exposed to fewer than five [traumatic events] in our lifetime," said Carleton. "Maybe not even any in our lifetime. But it certainly wouldn't be uncommon for any of these folks to be exposed to hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of these in their lifetimes." 

Carleton said it's possible the results could one day be used to protect police officers, firefighters, paramedics and other public safety personnel all over the world.

Data from the study's early days has already been collected and is currently being peer reviewed before it can be published.

Carleton said it is, to his knowledge, the largest study of police officers ever undertaken.

A new mindset for the Mounties

Recruitment was completed for the study's full complement of 960 new cadets in June.

Cpl. Sean O'Keefe, a 15-year veteran, is one of the more senior RCMP members facilitating the training to new cadets. While the study is just starting to gear up, he said it has already had a positive impact on new cadets and the organization as a whole.

He said a larger cultural shift and the service's involvement in the study have helped address stigmas about mental health that prevented important conversations.

"Now we're seeing a lot more prevalence of discussion around what is mental health, how do we maintain mental health, how do we improve it. And it's a very welcome atmosphere to be in," said O'Keefe.

As a training facilitator, he drew a parallel to recruits and officers being expected to take care of their physical body and being educated on ways to make that happen. He said maintaining healthy minds will keep officers working longer and more effectively in their communities, and may make them more emotionally aware and better-equipped when responding to calls that are more mental health-related than criminal in nature.

He said he would have welcomed such a mindset when he began his career in Manitoba in 2007.

"The type of training that the cadets are receiving here now is truly beneficial and something that I know I could've benefited from before I went out into those communities," O'Keefe said.


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