The concept of mental health is a hot topic – both in and out of police circles. The connection between Policing and mental health continues to be examined on different levels. It is no surprise that Police, being first responders, are involved daily in face-to-face interactions with members of our community that struggle with mental health issues.
On the flip side, the stigmatized topic of a police officer’s mental health also needs to be addressed; who takes care of those who take care of others?
Many people, officers included, may believe the police are highly trained emergency personnel and that this somehow excludes them from the emotions of traumatic events.
On the surface the first responder gets the job done and through the high-level training, seems impervious to the pain of the people who they have just helped. I can assure you that this is far from the truth. We are human and trauma affects us all quite differently. Sometimes it will affect you immediately, but often it may not affect you until down the road.
I vividly remember attending my first fatal car crash years ago. It was a blur of frenzy and chaos – people standing around to watch the emergency personnel work midst the tragedy of the situation.
I got to the scene at 9:30 p.m. I was there to do a job; I had been trained and knew what was expected of me. I secured the scene, getting the injured off to the hospital. I talked to witnesses and took statements. I even had to tell a family the heart-wrenching news of tragedy.
It was a whirlwind of stress, emotion and high energy to get done what was needed. I remember finishing my report and walking down to Central Records to hand in my officer notes, and looking at the clock and seeing it now read 3:00 a.m.
I didn’t think too much about the call after that, until I was driving home later that morning. It dawned on me that even though we are highly trained to do our jobs, we are still human. Not a time goes by that I pass that intersection that I don’t think about the tragedy that I was a part of many years ago.
For an officer to end up with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is not uncommon. Most people think that PTSD happens when one experiences a single traumatic event, but this is only partially true. PTSD can also be cumulative, when a person with years and years of experiences and countless traumatic events. This is common place in the careers of many emergency services and military personnel.
A sad story surfaced a few months back when a Staff Sargent with the Hamilton Police Service (HPS) in Ontario took his own life. S/Sgt Ian Matthews suicide has brought the whispered subject of police mental health into the light. It’s unfortunate that it has taken somebody’s life to see that the elephant in the room needs to be acknowledged. If you read anything else today, read this article written by a colleague of S/Sgt Matthews.
Police services today teach their officers to be tactically ready to deal with anything the streets throw their way, but what about after the dust settles? What does an officer do after the days, weeks, or years pass and the emotions come flooding back? This training is just as important.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) instructor’s course, which is put on by The Mental Health Commission of Canada. It was great – it helped to prepare me to instruct fellow officers in the MHFA two-day course. I’m very pleased with the Saskatoon Police Service’s forward thinking and getting its officers educated and trained in this often stigmatized and misunderstood area. The simple skills that the MHFA framework teaches are invaluable for frontline personnel. We are not there to diagnose or act as psychologists, but merely to apply mental first aid to those in crisis and hopefully stabilize them until they get the help they need.
Educating front line personnel on how to handle people suffering with mental disorders is a step in the right direction but we have to look at ourselves as officers as well. This will assist in emotionally bulletproofing us for our jobs on the front line, but also in our personal lives. With more training and understanding of mental health issues hopefully this will move us closer to understanding and de- stigmatizing an all too common issue.