Hamil­ton po­lice be­gin ‘courageous con­ver­sa­tion’ on men­tal health

In the midst of its grief, force looks at how its mem­bers han­dle the job’s stres­sors and pres­sures

The Hamilton Spectator - - LOCAL - SU­SAN CLAIR­MONT

A“courageous con­ver­sa­tion” has be­gun in­side the Hamil­ton Po­lice Ser­vice, even as it grap­ples with grief.

With un­prece­dented open­ness, po­lice and civil­ian mem­bers are talk­ing about men­tal health is­sues within their own ranks and the life-and-death need for a cul­tural shift that will en­cour­age those who are strug­gling to reach out for help.

It has been one month since a well-re­garded vet­eran of­fi­cer took his own life at head­quar­ters. The death of Staff Sergeant Ian Matthews has prompted a di­a­logue that is louder and clearer than any­thing Chief Glenn De­Caire has heard be­fore, on a topic bur­dened by stigma.

“We are en­gag­ing in the di­a­logue of sui­cide,” he says.

There is much stigma around men­tal ill­ness in so­ci­ety as a whole, but it runs deeper in the po­lice com­mu­nity, which has a cul­ture that is unique and pow­er­ful.

“Po­lice of­fi­cers are the knight in shin­ing ar­mour, the su­per­hero who will come in and save the day,” says De­Caire. “But that’s a heavy bur­den for any­body to carry.”

The role they play and the trauma they are ex­posed to are stres­sors. That is in­ten­si­fied when that is com­bined with “the high level of scru­tiny of our work,” says the chief, cit­ing the stan­dards de­manded by crim­i­nal and civil courts, the Spe­cial In­ves­ti­ga­tions Unit, the pub­lic and me­dia.

“It’s that de­mand for per­fec­tion in what we do that adds a lot of pres­sure to our of­fi­cers.”

Matthews is not the first Hamil­ton of­fi­cer to die by sui­cide. Nor is he the first to take his life while on duty.

In 2005, a Hamil­ton of­fi­cer drove a po­lice car to a ceme­tery and shot him­self with his ser­vice gun. Eight months later, another drove his cruiser to a park and did the same thing.

In be­tween, the high­est-rank­ing of­fi­cers in the ser­vice un­der­went train­ing on sui­cide preven­tion.

No­body is keep­ing sta­tis­tics on the num­ber of Cana­dian po­lice of­fi­cers who die by sui­cide.

In his 2012 spe­cial re­port, In the Line of Duty, which ex­am­ines the OPP han­dling of op­er­a­tional stress in­juries, On­tario Om­buds­man An­dré Marin writes that be­tween 1989 and 2012, 23 ac­tive and re­tired OPP of­fi­cers died by sui­cide.

The Na­tional Po­lice Sui­cide Foun­da­tion in the United States says that around the world the sui­cide rate among those with a badge is dou­ble that of civil­ians. Amer­i­can cops are twice as likely to die by sui­cide than to be killed in the line of duty.

The num­bers are im­pre­cise, though. Bob Dou­glas, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, says many po­lice deaths that may be sui­cides are clas­si­fied as ac­ci­den­tal.

At On­tario Po­lice Col­lege in Aylmer, re­cruits are lec­tured on the im­por­tance of a sup­port sys­tem. For many, that source of sup­port is a spouse. But if that re­la­tion­ship f alls apart — di­vorce rates are high among po­lice — that sup­port dis­ap­pears.

One of the great­est bar­ri­ers to of­fi­cers ask­ing for help from some­one other than a spouse is the fear that ad­mit­ting to a men­tal health is­sue will have a neg­a­tive im­pact on their ca­reer, that they will be found un­fit for duty.

Since, for many cops, polic­ing isn’t just a ca­reer but a call­ing, they fear los­ing their iden­tity along with their badge.

Chief De­Caire says a bal­ance must be struck “to pro­tect the mem­ber, the or­ga­ni­za­tion and the com­mu­nity we serve,” but seek­ing help does not mean the end of a ca­reer. Still, trust is a prob­lem. “Cops are not go­ing to trust as read­ily as civil­ians,” says Wendi Woo, a psy­cho­log­i­cal as­so­ci­ate at Home­wood Health Cen­tre in Guelph. Twice a week, Woo leads a ther­apy ses­sion for cops and sol­diers deal­ing with ad­dic­tion and post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der. Th­ese “uni­formed pro­fes­sion­als” are sep­a­rated out in their own group be­cause their is­sues are unique.

“They speak their own lan­guage” for one thing, says Woo, who has be­come well-versed in cop talk over 18 years of work­ing with them.

Also, cops don’t think civil­ians will un­der­stand their jobs or their stres­sors. They need to be cer­tain of con­fi­den­tial­ity and “cops, by train­ing, will hold on longer than the av­er­age per­son to re­main­ing in con­trol.”

Even when they need to talk about the ter­ri­ble things they’ve gone through, cops of­ten don’t want to “con­tam­i­nate civil­ians” with those hor­rific sto­ries, says Woo. “‘I’m strong, this is what I signed up for, I should suck it up,’” they think.

“Cops do not sit around talk­ing about their feel­ings,” Woo says. “So, the first step in all of this is let’s just start talk­ing. By hav­ing those con­ver­sa­tions, cops may re­al­ize they are not iso­lated. They are not alone.”

Po­lice bud­gets de­vote lots of dol­lars to of­fi­cer safety — vests, guns, Tasers, train­ing. And of­fi­cers are en­cour­aged to main­tain their phys­i­cal fit­ness through­out their ca­reer — sta­tions have gyms, fit­ness pins are awarded.

Fewer re­sources and less en­cour­age­ment are put into sui­cide preven­tion and men­tal health.

Po­lice lead­ers in Canada have made men­tal health care for of­fi­cers a pri­or­ity. In March, the Cana­dian As­so­ci­a­tion of Chiefs of Po­lice (CACP) and the Men­tal Health Com­mis­sion are host­ing a con­fer­ence in Toronto aimed at im­prov­ing in­ter­ac­tions with peo­ple with men­tal health is­sues — be they mem­bers of the pub­lic or of­fi­cers them­selves.

“Cul­ture takes a long time to change,” says Terry Cole­man, for­mer chief of the Moose Jaw po­lice ser­vice and cur­rently chair of the CACP hu­man re­source com­mit­tee, which over­sees men­tal health ini­tia­tives. “Change has to start in ba­sic train­ing.”

Of­fi­cers are ac­cus­tomed to be­liev­ing “no­body knows any­thing about po­lice ex­cept other po­lice of­fi­cers,” says Cole­man. That needs to change, so cops can reach out to men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als for help.

Best prac­tices and sug­ges­tions get­ting trac­tion in­clude manda­tory coun­selling on an on­go­ing ba­sis; peer sup­port; bet­ter Em­ployee As­sis­tance Pro­gram cov­er­age; im­proved men­tal health lit­er­acy and em­bed­ding psy­chol­o­gists within po­lice ser­vices.

Chief De­Caire says he wants his of­fi­cers to reach out for help. Ei­ther through the ser­vice, or on their own. “I’m not in­ter­ested in the de­tails,” he in­sists. “I just want them to get help.”

“In the last month, I am very en­cour­aged by the amount of sup­port peo­ple are pro­vid­ing to each other and the amount of di­a­logue we are hav­ing. We are send­ing a very strong mes­sage about be­ing open. We want our mem­bers to en­gage in courageous con­ver­sa­tion.”

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