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Listening for the sound of silence

Silence is a peculiar and multi-faceted concept. Studies demonstrate silence in its purest form is beneficial for the brain. We all need periods of silence to relax, rest, or reflect on things. Silence is linked to a number of virtues, such as respect, decorum and modesty. We hold a minute of silence out of deep respect for our fallen officers and troops. It is also an extremely powerful tool capable of conveying a strong message without a single word being spoken. Silence offers many positive effects but it can also have a dark side. This negative counterpart will be explored in this article.


January 9, 2019
By Isabelle Sauve


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Research indicates persons holding back feelings view the world around them as more challenging. While silence has its place and function, it is vital to note that many officers struggle in silence with their emotional and psychological issues, further exacerbating problems and having a detrimental impact on wellness.

Silence can initially provide a false sense of control for those experiencing emotional or mental struggles over which they may in fact have little control. Silence grows and delves into stronger negative emotions. A sense of disconnection in relationships often begins to occur and worsens over time.

Pretending everything is fine can go on for extended periods. However, this allows for a problem to settle in and then grow in deep rootedness, complexity and impact. Repressed feelings magnify in potency and can be very damaging to one’s well-being. Significant information willfully withheld tends to resurface at random times and exerts an increasing gravitational pull on our attention over time.

Silence often exists when a choice is made not to confront something or rather to hide something. Research suggests a tendency to remain silent on important issues in the world of policing largely stems from a fear of loss of status. As a result, those facing crisis may feel alone with nowhere to turn.

While silence can be peaceful, the person remaining silent is not necessarily at peace. Silence is generally not an effective message vector; it builds assumptions and assumptions are frequently dangerously wrong. In difficult times, effective communication is key.

Silence is engraved in police culture and in the training of recruits. The para-military structure often rewards subordinates for blindly following direction without question or comment. New recruits soon discover uniform inspections are conducted in silence and anyone daring to comment or speak without being directly addressed is quickly corrected.

Throughout training, recruits are also subjected to a number of psychological and physical challenges aimed at personal growth. Some recruits face their greatest fears and self-doubts. Those considered the “toughest” most often submit to authority and confidently undertake tasks at hand. Those with the tendency to “suck it up” and carry on are considered exemplary. Officers are praised for their independent and unwavering ability to tackle any challenge thrown their way.

A tendency to remain silent can depict a trait of character, but it should never be imposed by a society or organization. In many social and professional settings, speaking out about work-related or personal issues can make the narrator unpopular. As a result, some become prisoners of their own emotions, unable to communicate their true thoughts.

Unexpressed problematic feelings are more likely to percolate and grow a life and energy of their own. The energy tends to enter into a negative spiral of struggle and frustration.

Police entities as a whole have largely remained silent about issues such as officer depression, suicide and discrimination of all nature, further exasperating the problems. Stigma lives through lack of understanding and non-confrontation.

Police culture is complex but the question remains: Why we allow officers in emotional or psychological distress to suffer in silence out of fear of potential consequences on their reputations or futures? Officers should not have the additional worry that career aspirations, promotional opportunities or current positions will be taken away by being open. There cannot be a sense of embarrassment, weakness or failure over experiencing personal, emotional or psychological problems. In the line of duty, officers are exposed to a multitude of situations by nature of the job. They consequently have natural reactions to abnormal situations.  

Creating culture change requires education around realities and myths. Only when the stigma of mental health is removed will officers feel fully comfortable breaking the silence. Recognition should be given for being strong and speaking of issues.

We must all redefine “toughness.” Admitting to, communicating and facing issues takes courage and is a sign of strength. Dealing with issues, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, or any emotional/psychological hurdle, requires toughness. Persons who engage in a journey to fight an illness, like cancer, are rightfully viewed as heroes. Those fighting personal issues or mental illness are also heroes and must be viewed as such.


Isabelle Sauve is a 11-year OPP veteran currently with the Emergency Response Team (ERT) at the Almaguin Highlands Detachment in Burks Falls, about 300 km north of Toronto. She can be contacted at: isabelle.sauve@hotmail.com.