Blue Line

Features Holding the Line
Expanding the Peer Support Role


January 27, 2021
By Michelle Vincent

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If you are a regular reader of my column, you are aware of my inspired passion for mental health in our first responders and uniform personnel. My world revolves around exploring/discovering leading-edge mental health resources for those who serve our community in any capacity. Being a recently retired police officer, my specialty lies within this particular “community”.

From Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) to peer support, Edmonton Police Service’s Reintegration After Critical Incident and Long-Term Leave program, to resilience training; proactive and reactive programming is essential to supporting first responders in being well and maintaining their wellness.

This is how The Haven came to be. A late night on a CISM incident with a paramedic on long-term leave experiencing suicidal ideation, brought about the discovery of La Vigile, the first non-profit, occupational-specific, inpatient treatment oasis exclusive to first responders and uniform personnel. Brilliant minds continue to take innovative programming, and are expanding it to support even more in the first responder community than they already do. Understanding the intricate needs that are woven throughout our professions, involving both exposure to traumatic incidents, and the underlying culture that innately elicits reactions, is key in providing effective, supportive, mental health programming.

Great ties have been maintained with leading-edge organizations I have worked with as a police officer and continue to work with. Their many members with whom I have a great connection, both nationally and internationally, have contributed with their leading-edge ideas to the various mental health programs that exist today.

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One of those connections, a frontline police officer, recognizing this passion for mental health resources and programming, came to me for consultation on an idea for a proposed program he felt might be instrumental in preventing members from experiencing serious mental health issues and/or suicide. Completed suicides amongst policing first responders are an ongoing, serious concern as the numbers continue to rise. This statistic of suicide that grows daily, and this front-line constable’s own personal experience of being off on such a leave, is what has inspired him to initiate the development of this proposed program.

This program would be a combination of effective mental health programming that is specific to members who have experienced mental health issues and/or discipline, and are off on a leave as a result, and peer support. While this program development is still in its infancy, the way the program is being proposed to work is, a member who has been suspended, is on a mental health leave for any reason, and/or is on a mental health leave as a result of an internal or external investigation, would be paired up with a peer. This peer support-trained member would offer ongoing peer support, working out of the districts, matching their skills, abilities, and most importantly their shared/lived experience with their peer, who is off on leave from the organization no differently than a peer supporter.

It’s the peer-based delivery that ensures those members are working with someone who has “been there and done that”; someone who understands the feelings of isolation and shame, that a suspended member may feel while the investigation on them is ongoing. This proposed program recognizes that when members leave the service for various reasons, sometimes not by their choice, a “grieving” process may begin. This grieving process renders them vulnerable at different stages, during different time frames.

While peer support reaches out to the member at the initial stages of their leave, they are less likely to be ready to accept support. The challenge is, later on in the grieving process, when the member is likely to be most vulnerable, needing and receptive to a peer aupport connection, the opportunity for connection is often lost. This proposed program engages the peer-to-peer relationship throughout the process, from beginning to return to work or other resolution, to ensure the member is shown that they continue to be a valued employee of the policing service. In this way, the peer aupporter can identify a change in behavior or thought process at any given time in the peer they are supporting.

“Members do not trust to call in to the organization for support during this very traumatic time in their lives and would rather “crawl under a rock”, a place we want no member to be,” said this front-line constable, the creator of this inspiring proposed program/resource. This program would be a combination of peer support with some aspects of Edmonton Police Service’s Reintegration After Critical Incident and Long-Term Leave program.

When we look at how discipline is managed by our policing organizations we may want to consider both its effectiveness and the potential outcomes. Johann Hari, a researcher on various mental health aspects from drug addiction to depression and anxiety, suggests on his Ted Talks that as we evolve as a society, we have an opportunity to explore how we view these issues and how we deal with these issues as a whole. Mental health issues in police officers are a significant liability in relation to our organizations, families and communities, and can develop very easily into a misconduct at work.

While this may seem like it is another topic, providing peer support for all of members at all times, includes when members are involved in disciplinary matters. This provision of peer support in almost all circumstances sends the message that the organization is not discriminating between the mental health needs of its members; a very strong message of valuing their members.

Most if not all Canadian policing organizations have a set of values, one of which usually involves an investment in their members, sworn and civilian. Whatever value they have identifying their commitment to their members, is often tied in with an overall experience of “walking the talk”. These organizations have an opportunity to truly demonstrate through the provision of programming, their commitment to their members. Those members inside the organization, those who are actively contributing to their communities may feel greater inspiration to serve with the understanding that not only are they important and essential during active service, but are just as important while outside of their organization on leave no matter what the circumstance.

The mutual understanding between members and the organization, that the “psychological contract” is being met, according to Duran, Woodland and Bishopp (2018), is key in feeling valued as members of an organization. Feeling valued within the organization contributes to loyalty, productiveness, and overall satisfaction within the organization (Duran et al., 2018). It minimizes operational stressors, a large contributor to mental health issues such as PTSD.

This proposed program, by assigning peer support trained members, would create an opportunity for support and a life-enriching relationship between members off on mental health and/or disciplinary leave; the invisible yet essential support so many members need at this crucial time in their lives. Policing organizations pride themselves on being leading-edge, seeking change in challenging areas that often remain the unspoken. Their exploration of undertaking changing the culture in policing from toxic to constructive at the grass roots level through various projects is just one example. This proposed program, should it be implemented by any organizations, may be key in preventing further serious mental health decline. It may even prevent suicide among its members. This type of program may be the example of a true success in changing policing culture.

Many policing organizations could develop the model of this type of programming and show how to best support their members who are off on a mental health leave, and even more importantly those who are off on a leave involving discipline. When off on a leave involving discipline, self-directed or not, the feeling of being ostracized, shunned, and isolated are very often prevalent. Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, all contributors to suicide are common in members in this predicament.

Part of the solution? Implement a version of this type of program in your organization and ensure a peer is walking with their peer in what is likely the most challenging time of their life.


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