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From heroes to humans: Recognizing vulnerability in law enforcement

March 18, 2024  By Toni Harrington

Photo credit: kali9 / Getty

Policing is both psychologically and physically demanding, so it would be reasonable to infer that the occupational culture and demands might have some impact on mental health. Mental health functioning should not be considered independently of the unique performance tasks involved in law enforcement.

The work of a police officer is not a linear process that can be anticipated; the real world is unpredictable. In the current cultural context, the variable public opinion related to policing specifically has given rise to increased scrutiny and, likely, increased stress. Modern-day policing is tough. Officers may need additional support and may be vulnerable to stress at different points in their careers. This recognition is a prerequisite for being an effective leader. Knowledge about mental health and understanding the impact of self-stigma will help leaders identify workers at high risk for impairment and work absence.

Police officers are different than the general population of Canadian workers; repeated exposure to traumatic incidences and threats of harm can take a significant toll on mental health and overall well-being. Police officers also face unique challenges, including persistent stigma and limited access to treatment options to address their specific experiences.

Many public safety personnel (PSP) report clinically significant symptoms consistent with mental health disorders. This may be due to the frequent and cumulative exposures to potentially traumatic events during the performance of their job duties. Experiencing or witnessing events, such as the perpetration of harm or failure to prevent harm, can undermine one’s beliefs about the goodness in the world and cause harm. We even have a term for it: moral injury (Yeterian, 2019).

Despite greater awareness, organizational cultures still tend to reinforce stigma and fear around mental health disorders where mental health disorder is seen as a personal failure. In a recent study, traditional masculinity was identified as the largest cultural barrier to the reduction of stigma (Bikos, 2020). This included feeling pressure to be tough, stoic, and self-reliant.

Have you ever heard the phrase “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? It’s something we tell ourselves in the face of adversity. The problem with that idiom is that it reinforces black-and-white thinking: if you aren’t strong then you must be weak. If you need help, then you surely can’t be of help. The unrealistic belief that helpers must be invincible.

Being a leader of leaders means that sometimes you need to think in the grey zone. You may need to consider the seemingly absurd: vulnerability might actually mean strength; asking for help might be indicative of something vastly different than weakness. Understanding that no one is invincible, that even superheroes can be compromised with a rock from their home planet.

Your work is unique and therefore response to your needs may have to be unique.

When things are tough, we tend to default to what we know or think to be true. One important part of being a leader of leaders is to recognize your own Achilles’ heel—the values or bias that might influence your decision-making, your interactions and your leadership approach. These are the core of ethical leadership. Identifying what you bring to the work and knowing how you might be contributing to a positive or not-so-positive workplace is truly the hallmark of great wisdom.

Studies of PSP

There is increasing awareness that potentially traumatic events may not be the only work-related stressor police officers experience. For example, recently published studies of PSP implied that traumatic event exposures are only one element impacting their mental health. Both studies implicated a range of occupational challenges, including issues such as differential treatment of employees by leadership, indifference to mental health, insufficient recognition of stressors, and overt and covert stigma (Carleton, 2020).

In one study looking at PSP, the researchers found that substantial difficulties with occupational stressors (e.g., staff shortages, inconsistent leadership styles, shift work, public scrutiny) were significantly associated with several anxiety and mood-related disorders, even after controlling for traumatic events (Ricciardelli, 2020). The two biggest stressors that were identified included feeling like you always have to prove yourself to the organization and believing that if you are sick or injured your co-workers will look down on you (Ricciardelli, 2020).

Different types of stigma

This is central to the types of stigma that leaders and organizations need to contend with. There is what we call “public stigma”, which involves the negative or discriminatory attitudes that others have about mental illness. Then we have “self-stigma”, which refers to the negative attitudes, including internalized shame, that police officers with mental illness have about their own condition. Finally, there is “institutional stigma”, which is more systemic, involving policies of the government and other organizations that intentionally or unintentionally limit opportunities for people with mental illness. Arguably, there is a reduction in what some refer to as “overt stigma”. The “covert stigma” still exists and is a reality for many.

Enacting change

Consider the situation of a lone police officer – a helper of others, a leader among leaders. How difficult it is not only to ask for help but to admit that one might need it? What we believe about ourselves can be a powerful predictor of future actions. Self-efficacy is the belief we have in our abilities and competencies. Bear in mind that being distressed or having a psychological injury can affect how one sees oneself. It’s not unusual for individuals who are suffering to feel negative about themselves and others, to mistrust others and to take things personally.

Understanding this might help you to identify situations requiring additional support and ensure that your subordinates receive the support needed. Leaders require self-awareness and organizational support so that day-to-day interventions and decisions can contribute to better outcomes. This will inevitably allow those subordinates, and even yourself, who might be impacted by a mental health issue to avoid absence or prolonged absence from work. The research suggests that the largest gains might be made by focusing on leadership training and support, improved organizational engagement, reduced stigma and strengthening social support. These are all noble and broad concepts and at a micro level may be difficult to operationalize.

If you want to make a direct impact in your workplace, you can look to address the internalization of shame and stigma. However, saying “You don’t always have to prove yourself” or “No one will look down on you for feeling poorly” isn’t enough. Think about how performing at your peak means taking care of oneself and identifying when things might be getting too much.

I have three suggestions for how leaders can start to do this:

  1. Don’t equate social support with alcohol-centric events. Alcohol has long been a staple of workplace culture. Regular alcohol consumption has been institutionalized, and post-shift beers to unwind are par for the course and even encouraged: it’s embedded in rites of passage and carries through to our workplace as a bonding ritual, morale booster and stress reliever. Rethink the role of alcohol in your organization.
  2. The small things matter. Make sure people know that you care about them – you don’t have to care for people but you should care about their health and wellbeing. This impacts the morale and performance of your workplace.
  3. Think about what you were taught about leadership by a parent, grandparent, elder, mentor. Three simple words: Lead by example. In short, know the way, go the way and show the way. Take care of yourself too.


  • Bikos, L. J. 2020. It’s all window dressing: Canadian police officers’ perceptions of mental health stigma in their workplace. Policing: An International Journal, 44(1), 63-76.
  • Carleton, R. N., Afifi, T. O., Taillieu, T., Turner, S., Mason, J. E., Ricciardelli, R., McCreary, D. R., Vaughan, A. D., Anderson, G. S., Krakauer, R. L., Donnelly, E. A., Camp, R. D., 2nd, Groll, D., Cramm, H. A., MacPhee, R. S., & Griffiths, C. T. (2020). Assessing the Relative Impact of Diverse Stressors among Public Safety Personnel. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(4), 1234.
  • Ricciardelli, R., Czarnuch, S., Carleton, R. N., Gacek, J., & Shewmake, J. (2020). Canadian Public Safety Personnel and Occupational Stressors: How PSP Interpret Stressors on Duty. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(13), 4736.
  • Yeterian, J. D., Berke, D. S., Carney, J. R., McIntyre-Smith, A., St Cyr, K., King, L., Kline, N. K., Phelps, A., Litz, B. T., & Members of the Moral Injury Outcomes Project Consortium (2019). Defining and measuring moral injury: rationale, design, and preliminary findings from the moral injury outcome scale consortium. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 32(3), 363–372.

Toni Harrington MSW. MSc. DSc (C). has been a member of the police community for many years as a spouse of a police officer. Harrington holds a Bachelor and Masters of Social Work from Memorial University of Newfoundland, and also holds a Masters of Occupational Health Science from McGill University. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Queen’s University.

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