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Former police officers take aim at stigma around mental health


May 31, 2021
By Pj Kwong and Teddy Katz

May 31, 2021 – Retired police officer Dave McLennan said over his 30-year career, he saw that stigma prevents police from coming forward and talking about the mental health issues they face. Even though there are now wellness programs offered at many workplaces, he said many officers still don’t feel comfortable accessing them.

That’s why, in November 2018, McLennan founded Boots on the Ground, a not-for-profit organization that offers anonymous and confidential peer support for police and other first responders across Ontario.

March was one of its busiest months in the organization’s history. Now, McLennan is hoping to spread the word to police across the province. This week, the organization launched a public awareness campaign called ‘First Call’.  It highlights how first responders, including police, are often the first call in emergencies but also need a place they can call for support.

Over his career, McLennan said he’s seen first-hand the toll that dealing with trauma on the job and not speaking about it has resulted in suicide, addiction, divorce, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other stress injuries.

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“A lot of them see trauma and tragedy every day on the job and take that home with them. It can become a problem if they can’t speak about it,” McLennan said.

Boots on the Ground provides a 24 hour, seven days a week help line (1-833-677-2668) for retired and serving police officers and other First Responders looking for a place to call and somebody to listen.

McLennan is not only the Founder, he also is one of 160 trained volunteers who answer the calls. All the volunteers on the support line are serving or retired police officers or other First Responders.  They are given the latest peer support training and referral services.

Retired Constable Brenda Pennington, a 28-year veteran of the Peel Regional Police, is another volunteer answering the calls. She was also part of the original development committee and helped create an in-house training program for Boots on the Ground.

Pennington says police officers can sometimes be seen by friends, family and others as being used to cleaning up ‘messes’.

“I cringe when members of the public say, ‘you’re used to this so you have thick skin’ – which means I cannot be weak,” Pennington said.

Being traumatized by what an officer experiences on the job should never be described as weakness, but ought to be described as uniquely human.

Capturing the picture of mental health among police officers in Canada was important enough for the world-renowned CAMH mental health facility in Toronto to take a look at in a study published in 2018. The nature of police work is demanding, often stressful with an impact on mental health and well-being frequently felt by officers.

According to this study, within the general population, the lifetime prevalence rate of diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is about 9 per cent but for police officers across Canada there are about 29 per cent at any one time who are within the clinical range for this diagnosis.

That’s why the support offered by Boots on the Ground is changing lives, Pennington said.

“I recall speaking with a homicide investigator who had called, and you could hear the relief in his voice when I told him I was a retired officer. It meant no judgement. I just listened,” she said.

She is a big believer in the power of the mind/body connection and understands first-hand what validation of officers’ extraordinary circumstances can do.

“When workers don’t get help, they die. Either by their own hands–sometimes violently or through disease,” said Pennington. “You’ll learn you’re not alone and although we cannot solve everything with one phone call, it’s a start.”

Every journey, even one of hope, she said, starts with a single call.