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
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.”