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Features Holding the Line
Mental health resources that matter


January 4, 2022
By Michelle Vincent

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Photo credit: Coloures-Pic / Adobe Stock

There are a variety of resources available for both police officers and civilians. There is plenty of literature available, yet so many pieces made to support first responders’ mental health are puzzling.

A straightforward literature resource, Slay the Toxic Dragon, Police Leadership Impacting Member Wellness, authored by Brad McKay, Syd Gravel and Dr. Barbara Anschuetz, provides a powerful account of lived experiences of leadership lacking or gone wrong in law enforcement. Even though it is written primarily for leaders of policing organizations, I realized it’s really for any officer trying to understand the sometimes-toxic dynamics of a first responder organization. As I read through it, I felt great relief in understanding that the workplace toxicity many of us have experienced as police officers or civilians, was/is not our fault—nor did we make it happen in any way shape or form.

This mental health resource was co-authored by two former police officers, both in middle management positions, and one therapist who has spent decades training and treating first responders from a mental health perspective. I noticed a clear synergy in the real-life examples provided anonymously for this book.

These examples aim to open the eyes of members of leadership to the effects toxicity has on the mental health of their members, units and the entire organization; ultimately impacting the delivery of policing services to our communities as well as the families these members return home to after every shift.

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Often solution-focused by drawing from personal experiences, this book provides psychoeducation on the normalcy of the effects of toxicity in the emergency service environment; similarly, experiencing what we call a ‘normal reaction’ to an abnormal event. When considering a debriefing with Critical Incident Stress Management after exposure to a traumatic incident, we should consider this same ‘normal reaction’ to an abnormal event when experiencing workplace toxicity – also known as ‘sanctuary trauma’.

Sanctuary trauma can have an even greater/profound effect than the traumatic incident and experience itself. Past conversations with members during one-on-one debriefings expressed that it was not so much the traumatic incident itself but the perceived reaction of their team, supervisors and organization that created the toxicity of being misunderstood, not feeling valued as a contributing member and having their experience ignored or swept under the rug.

This resource explains and provides personal examples of compassion fatigue vs. burnout – which are often intertwined and yet distinctive on their own. Understanding that, according to author Jennifer Moss (whom this book references), “burnout is about the workplace, not your people”. Discussions are had around trustworthiness and the powerful effects it has in the delivery of services, collaborative experiences, energy and retention with their employers. Understanding the debilitative effects of anger on the member, the organization and their family is also explored, with a suggestive solution to clarify the root cause of the anger with resolving action. The goal is to show the member they are valued, along with their perceived experience.

The book also discusses diversity, equality, equity, racism, discrimination, terminology and the understanding of these components with examples, charts and real-life applications. Their examples of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace support an awareness in what to look for when leading, as well as supporting colleagues as peers.

The most inspiring aspects of this book, for me, are the ‘leadership’ and ‘recommendations from the authors’ sections. There is always an opportunity to learn where we can demonstrate leadership and make that difference on so many levels, no matter our position in the organization. There are 22 recommendations on how to be aware of, understand and navigate from a proactive and reactive stance, the slaying of this toxic dragon: workplace toxicity.

For me, it was a cover to cover, powerfully educational and solution-focused example of how as leaders, we have responsibility to ensure our members are experiencing an emotionally and physically safe workplace. It is an organizational must that leaders be trained and demonstrate a clear understanding of the necessity of both awareness and competency in resolving any of the issues listed above. It’s how those leader(s) choose to approach these experiences may determine the mental wellness of that member for a lifetime. That is an opportunity to make a difference.

I leave you with quotes provided to me by the authors themselves; takeaways, if you will.

Brad McKay: “The most valuable asset in any organization is the people. We wrote this publication to honour those people who have been hurt, and are unable to speak for themselves. They have taken the most courageous step in trusting us in their most vulnerable times and we will not let them down.”

Syd Gravelle: “A chief’s worst nightmare is having to manage the fallout from toxic behaviour gone unchallenged. Our message is clear: don’t allow it to happen in the first place.”


Michelle Vincent PhD/MACP is a retired York Regional Police officer and the founder of The Haven, Ontario’s first non-profit, inpatient treatment centre exclusive to first responders and uniform personnel. Contact her at michelle.vincent@thehaven.cloud.


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