Blue Line

A comprehensive approach to wellness: How York Regional Police serves their community by serving their members

August 2, 2023  By Kathleen Griffin

Photo: / Adobe Stock

The physical and mental trauma that first responders and support staff can experience on the job can be obvious or invisible, a one-time event or a lingering affliction. It can manifest in unexpected physical or emotional symptoms that affect every facet of that individual’s life. Attempts to ignore the issue often only makes things worse and the reluctance felt by some to seek help can lead to a crippling stasis – where nothing improves and the situation seems hopeless.

Thankfully, attitudes toward wellness are shifting. Those suffering are realizing that ignoring the problem or simply staying silent doesn’t work and that discounting or dismissing concerns is no longer encouraged, or even accepted, by colleagues, superiors and organizational command.

As the wellness of members and their families continues to be in sharp focus, police organizations must now take the lead to ensure that the internal response keeps pace with the needs of the membership, particularly in offering mental health supports. The frequency with which our members are confronted with operational stress reinforces the organization’s duty to have comprehensive and effective systems in place to ensure that members do not struggle in silence.

A healthy employee

York Regional Police committed to investing in the wellness of our members in 2016, stepping away from the old-fashioned thinking that the organizational responsibility for employee wellness was primarily to mitigate liability.

A healthy employee, in body, mind and spirit, is a more compassionate and respectful responder. A healthy employee can better manage their personal and professional responsibilities. They have an increased capacity to mentor and guide colleagues and as supervisors, provide more meaningful direction and advice. We believe that investing in the well-being of our members is an investment in the well-being of our community.

Our holistic approach integrates training, easily accessible internal support and community partnerships with care providers into an overall safety net for all members. This approach recognizes that all members, supervisors and executive staff must be provided with tools to help combat stigma so they can respond to mental health issues in themselves and others. It also underscores the fact that effective support and recovery is built on confidentiality, accessibility and most importantly, trust in both.

But this course, and the commitment to our members’ overall health, did not happen overnight. A decade ago, we were like many police services at that time, relying almost exclusively on local Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) teams to help our members, and other first responders in fire and paramedic services, mitigate the effects associated with unusual, stressful events. And while YRP had dedicated members on the CISM team doing this important work, the team managed its own oversight and was not specific to YRP.

A comprehensive approach

The 2015, the In the Line of Duty report was released. Prepared by the Ontario Ombudsman for the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), the report studied the mental health effects of operational stress injury on OPP officers. The recommendations that resulted were not only helpful for the provincial police agency but were applicable to all police services. We knew it was time to do more.

The Safeguard Program was running then at YRP, in which once a year, an external psychologist would assess members working in high-stress environments, such as Internet Child Exploitation, Special Victims, Homicide, Human Trafficking and Communications. But it was focused on risk management – could the member continue to perform in the role or not? It was far less focused on supporting officers doing distressing, often traumatic, work and that was a gap. And though YRP had also recruited and trained several members to act as Peer Supporters, volunteering their time to assist other members struggling with incidents they too had dealt with personally or professionally, it was informal, with too few people and did not have the reach and visibility in the organization to begin building trust.

By 2016, it was clear a more comprehensive approach was needed. A full-time psychologist, Dr. Kyle Handley, was hired to develop an organization-wide wellness strategy and co-ordinate existing, albeit disjointed, services into a cohesive, forward-looking plan. The first years, 2016 to 2020, were dedicated to re-organizing services under one umbrella and shifting services that existed mostly to mitigate organizational risk, to being truly member focused.

“At the root of the strategy’s principles are the four pillars of optimum health – biological, psychological, social and spiritual – with services and supports available to address each one of these areas,” said Dr. Handley. “Each area is essential to a member’s overall sense of wellness and when addressed collectively, can help members build strong, resilient careers, lifestyles, families and communities.”

Building on those roots, we are now implementing the follow-up Wellness Strategy 2020 to 2025.

The wellness centre

Last fall, in an unprecedented collaboration between YRP and the York Regional Police Association, we celebrated the opening of a permanent, 6,600-square-foot Wellness Centre. Offering services to members, families and retirees, including education and support related to the four wellness pillars. This facility is the first of its kind in Canada and the partnership represents the continued commitment of both organizations to the well-being of our uniform and civilian staff and in turn, to our community.

The centre facilitated the expansion of the Psychological Health Unit, which now includes two psychologists, two social workers and two psychotherapists, ensuring that all members have access to these supports whenever they may need them. In addition, the centre will soon provide members with a confidential and easily accessible space to receive services such as chiropractic care, massage, peer support, chaplaincy and fitness and nutrition planning.

“In order to for our people and our community to thrive, we need members who are mentally and physically healthy.” – YRP Chief Jim MacSween

The centre also retains an external substance-use management service which offers confidential and anonymous guidance to manage substance use for members and their families. YRP is the only service in the country offering this type of external service to its members.

Another win for YRP has been the Embedded Provider Program, where a wellness team representing each of the four pillars works on site from each district station, including a peer supporter, mental health clinician, chaplain and biological health representative, allowing members timely access to services and the opportunity to build personal relationships. This program has resulted in a significant reduction of the stigma associated with seeking help, an increase in awareness of what services are available and has increased the utilization of those services across the organization.

The most recent element introduced to normalize the need for help, raise awareness of the four pillars and provide details on available programs is the Wellness First app. The completely confidential app was developed in partnership with Toronto Metropolitan University specifically for YRP members, retirees and their families and provides tailored support. It calculates members’ areas of need based on answers to a series of questions. It then connects the member to appropriate resources, including in-house peer support, fitness and nutrition information and internal and external contacts offering professional assistance.

Now, the focus of the Wellness Bureau is growth and innovation, building on the overall foundation that has been established. We are raising awareness of the available programs and services, including those offered by providers in our diverse communities. We’re reducing stigma through the increased use and knowledge of available supports and we’re continuing to offer targeted care that is easy to navigate through the organizational system. Simplifying access to information about existing resources, streamlining the paperwork and documentation required and increasing messaging around these topics, will allow members to better understand how to engage needed support with minimal red tape and delay.

“An organization is, above all, its people. In order to for our people and our community to thrive, we need members who are mentally and physically healthy,” said YRP Chief Jim MacSween. “The key is to take a holistic approach. If we proactively invest in our people, show them compassion and offer assistance when needed, we will ensure our members are resilient and ready to serve the community at their best.”

Kathleen Griffin has been the Senior Manager of Corporate Communications for York Regional Police for almost 20 years. YRP is considered a provincial leader in communications, media relations and social media and her team has raised the bar in connecting with the community with engaging, award-winning programs and campaigns across multiple platforms.

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