Blue Line


November 23, 2015  By Ian Parsons

820 words — MR

Getting a handle on mental health in policing

by Ian Parsons

— General Rick Hillier, Apr. 2008.

Anyone ever in “harness” has suffered from some form of post traumatic stress. How we cope with it varies greatly. Most can subvert the impact of the experience, allowing it to fade from memory with time.

In my father’s era (he joined the RCMP in 1930), job stressors were most often alleviated after the fact through the healing properties of Johnnie Walker’s Special Old.

Succumbing to the trauma experienced through witnessing violence, death or both was perceived as “unmanly”. Males dominated policing and the suggestion that would change was out of the question. Little changed in my generation of policing, which began in 1960. Part way through my career, circa 1970, a glimmer of empathy for those traumatized by their experiences began to surface.

I was in charge of the academic section at the RCMP Academy during those years. A senior constable from Montreal came under my charge. He had been “under cover” for two years, his life was in danger and the powers that be felt the training division would be a good place to hide him. Almost overnight, he was plucked from the bowels of Canada’s largest city, shaved, showered, put back in uniform and expected to assume the role of corporal instructor.

It was not long before concerns were raised about his demeanor, use of obscenities in class and the assorted inappropriate and ghastly stories he shared with wide eyed recruits. He looked the part, but internally, he was still on the mean streets of Montreal. He had received no debriefing whatsoever, but was expected to assume the mantle of academic instructor.

He was coached but the road was long and arduous. After a few short months, management deemed him unsuitable for the task and he was to be relocated. I spoke on his behalf, pointing out that he had been ill prepared for the transition. He was allowed to stay on. It took some time but he slowly lost his “street image”. During this period, he told about the horrendous and life-threatening settings where he had worked. It became obvious that management, both in Montreal and the training division, were oblivious to the need to assist him in transitioning to the next step in his career.

As the years went by, PTSD acquired a profile throughout the police culture. More and more members were diagnosed and steps were taken to care for them. During the mid ’90s, there was an incident at a large Vancouver Island sub-division where a deranged individual killed his wife and several children with an axe.

The crime scene was indescribably violent and bloody. The supervising NCO, very experienced in serious crime incidents, suffered a heart attack not long after the file was concluded. One of the attending members, a promising young officer assigned to general investigation duties just prior to the event, lost his ability to function, his bright future compromised.

He received counseling and therapy, but to no avail, and left the force a few months after. He still lives in the community but has never been able to attain his previous potential. He was clearly another casualty in this terrible event.

Recently, the RCMP came under scrutiny for not providing sufficient resources to care for members experiencing PTSD. Will there ever be enough? Since the disorder was recognized scores of personnel have come forward looking for help. Logistics are challenging. Patients often go on medical leave, leaving units short-handed and setting an environment for greater stress for those left behind.

Policing has always been a psychologically challenging profession. The vagaries of our society vis a vis changing demographics, emerging cultures and increasing population only make the job more intense. Does it require police forces to develop further and more sophisticated testing programs that might identify applicants as more vulnerable than others to job stressors?

Should operational police personnel have a mental health check annually? Then, as Commissioner Paulson notes, there are the malingerers. It has become politically incorrect to even suggest the possibility of someone using PTSD as a prop. On the other hand, is malingering simply a symptom of PTSD?

We are way beyond sitting around a bottle of rye after shift to drown fears and traumas. There will always be souls who need more than that to cope. They need to be identified and given the kind of psychological healing that will restore the ability to carry out their duties. Many can be saved, but there are those who incur so much mental damage that returning to police work is not an option.

Policing the front lines can be compared to combat. There can and will be casualties and that is an unfortunate reality of life.

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