Running for mental-health awareness
By Lisa Miller
For Cst. Jeff Bartsch, the dusty, endless kilometers of Saskatchewan grid are his therapy, and his purpose. Jeff is a member of the Weyburn Police Service and a person who has found his cause.
By Lisa Miller
About 10 years ago, Bartsch was a 21 year old working as a police officer in a small and isolated community. “I made about two years and my world caved in.” Long hours of working alone, with few supports or opportunities to leave the community to recharge, caused a landslide of anxiety and depression which eventually caused him to quit his career and nearly cost him his new marriage. He went to see a psychologist but his secret struggles had not gone undetected. The next day his supervisor ordered him to attend a mandatory psych test.
It is unwritten but inherent; police culture has not until recently encouraged its members to talk about pain, fear and sadness, but Bartsch admits that he couldn’t even talk to his parents about what he was going through. Real concerns about job security and the perception of other officers make mental health issues become worse, which Bartsch believes could be alleviated or eliminated if only people would start talking about it openly.
He tried medications to get his anxiety and depression under control with only moderate success, and he didn’t like how they made him feel. Then he started to run. “Running leaves you with your thoughts. It teaches you belly-breathing, deep breathing, which reduces your heartrate … and calms the brain, allowing it to think more clearly.” After taking up running he began to feel better.
Bartsch worked as a long-haul truck driver after leaving policing, but he yearned to go back. With the support of his wife, Bartsch enrolled in the Atlantic Police Academy where he learned more about mental health for police officers. “Every day for six months we were taught about mental health. I left believing we should all be talking about this. So when people ask why I left policing or why I would be crazy enough to try it again, I tell them my story.”
And that story attracted the attention of some police officers in the U.S., some of whom had their own experiences with mental health. Jeff’s U.S. contacts provided him with the inspiration and partnerships that propelled him to compete in his third, and most meaningful marathon.
In May 2016 he ran the Saskatchewan Marathon in full uniform to bring further awareness to mental health. His partnerships with the U.S. officers and the social media accounts that documented his journey helped him achieve his goal. Jeff’s Twitter account exploded with messages from other police officers who commended his efforts and let him know that they too had been affected.
He speaks firmly about his desire to educate people about the difference between mental health and mental illness. A mental illness can look like many things, but “it can often be something that is treatable but not necessarily curable”, says Bartsch. He believes many people’s issues with depression and anxiety spiral out of control because of stigma. “When we get a toothache, we go to a dentist. No one is embarrassed of that. But when we have mental pain, we ignore it because we are scared to talk.”
During his time at Atlantic Police Academy, he learned some secrets about maintaining mental health and believes every officer should be mandated to have a mental health checkup. He also believes that all people should perform mental health checkups on themselves, asking “How am I feeling? They should also be aware of coping strategies to help themselves.
Bartsch admits that the road back to mental wellness was a long one but credits his wife for where he is today. “It nearly cost me my marriage. But I chose her over the job and if she had left, I don’t think I’d be here.” Jeff was hired on with Weyburn Police Service in October 2015 and says he is glad to be back in his home province where he has a good working environment and supportive supervisors, which he didn’t have during his first stint in policing.
His goal of increasing awareness has not stopped at his marathon. He regularly attends a support group in uniform at the Weyburn Canadian Mental Health Association and introduces himself as Jeff. He is passionate about being an advocate and has remained true in his desire to help others.
Marlo Pritchard, Chief of Weyburn Police Service says this about Jeff: “When we interviewed Jeff, he was forthcoming about some of his past struggles. He also came across as honest, sincere and meticulously prepared. He is passionate about policing and has become a leader in this community. His dedication to mental health awareness is phenomenal. As a society we need to stop talking about mental health and physical health. It’s health — period.”
Lisa Miller works at Kids on the Block Regina, an interactive puppet-based education program, focused on bullying and abuse prevention for kids ages 5-11 located in Regina, Sask. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org