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Busting the Stigma

Network, Winter 2005

Four years ago, after 17 years on the force, police officer Bill Anderson (not his real name) began to notice changes in his mood and responses to situations. He felt overwhelming frustration and confusion, he withdrew from family and friends, he hated going to work, he began to smoke very heavily, he committed minor crimes in order to get caught, and he planned his suicide. He became a different person — angry and fearful. Eventually, after a major crisis, he went to a psychiatrist his wife knew, and he was diagnosed with clinical depression.

Anderson remembers how he used to think about people with mental illness. “They were the opposite of us as police officers. We were strong and resilient, they were weak and flawed. We called them ‘nutbars.’” Now he was one of the nutbars.

Anderson knows his situation is not unique, yet nobody at work talks openly about having a mental illness, he says, and many pretend that mental illness doesn’t happen to police officers. Police officers in Canada face a daily balancing act, trying to protect their emotional and psychological health while maintaining effectiveness in their ever-increasing role as service-oriented, helping professionals.

The job of police officer can be extremely stressful. There are many risk factors, not found in most occupations, for developing addiction and mental health problems. While the police experience many of the same stresses as other workers — long hours, dwindling resources, and managers who sometimes have less than adequate skills — they also experience unique daily challenges to maintaining a healthy mental balance: the witnessing of horrific human tragedies; the danger of physical and psychological abuse; a heavily structured, hierarchical work environment; constant public exposure and scrutiny; and personal liability and accountability for all actions.

Two seemingly opposite character traits are required to do the job. A police officer must be tough and dispassionate (“Just the facts, ma’am”) when confronted with dangerous, emotionally charged or horrific situations. At the same time, the officer cannot be cold and callous, but must maintain an open mind and a compassionate heart.

Dr. Dorothy Cotton, a psychologist at Correctional Service Canada and Queen’s University, and co-chair of the Canadian National Committee for Police/Mental Health Liaison, is well-acquainted with the contradictions of police psychology. Her recent study of police attitudes toward people with mental illness revealed that police officers show more understanding and compassion than the average Canadian. Most of the 150 Canadian officers who participated in the study believe that people with mental illness deserve more societal tolerance and should not be denied their individual rights.

According to Officer Anderson, this attitude of tolerance and advocacy for human rights does not extend to a fellow officer experiencing a mental health problem. “If you break your leg on the job, everybody rallies around. But if you have depression because of the job, they see you permanently as a nutbar and they don’t want to know you. Policing has a very tight and unforgiving subculture that does not support disclosure of mental illness.”

Terry Coleman, chief of Moose Jaw Police for seven years, and co-chair of the Canadian National Committee for Police/Mental Health Liaison, says that when he began policing more than 30 years ago, emotional problems were taboo on any police force. Yet despite the current workplace climate that continues to discourage personal disclosure of mental health problems, Coleman is encouraged by what he sees as an evolution of understanding among officers.

“The culture is so different from 1969 when I first joined the force in Calgary, when any discussion of the emotional impact of the job was thought of as wussy crap.” Coleman believes that officers are increasingly seeking professional help through their Employee and Family Assistance Programs (EFAPs). He also sees an increase in requests for critical incident and stress debriefings, indicating a growing awareness of the impact of the job on the mental health of officers. And he believes that in private conversations police officers do try to steer their colleagues to get help.

Yet the stigma remains, and support services may be inadequate or poorly promoted within the organization. Anderson says that officers are suspicious of critical incident debriefing sessions because statements they make could be used against them. Another barrier to treatment may be lack of awareness of assessment and referral services available through EFAPs. Even when a police officer is referred to a psychiatrist, the officer may worry that people will find out or that somehow confidentiality might be breached. The lack of trust reinforces the stigma, and the silence continues.

Chief Coleman has never had an officer disclose a mental illness to him in his seven years as chief, nor has he heard of any officer anywhere disclosing a mental illness. He has had officers disclose substance abuse, and he has experienced the suicide of one of his officers, but he says that nobody talks openly at work about having a mental illness.

Twenty thousand men and women are members of the Police Association of Ontario. Health Canada statistics indicate that one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime, usually during their adult working years. The laws of probability, coupled with the elevated risk factors of a high-stress job, suggest that roughly 4,000 of Ontario’s police officers will experience a mental health problem at some point, most likely during their time in the service. What happens when no one wants to hear about it?

The stigma of mental illness prevents officers from seeking appropriate treatment, according to Officer Anderson. Police officers suffer in silence. They self-medicate with alcohol, engage in crime, and some end their lives by suicide. But the culture responds with denial. “The culture says that we don’t have alcoholism, we don’t have suicide, we don’t have officers calling out for help by committing crimes,” says Anderson. “The family is often told that an officer died while cleaning his weapon. But we all know that you can’t shoot yourself while cleaning your gun.”

Culturally, police services are similar to the military, where there is a high premium on toughness, according to psychologist Dr. Dorothy Cotton. She says police officers may believe that any hope of advancement would be curtailed if they sought psychological help. Fellow officers may perceive it as a sign of weakness.

Officer Anderson agrees. “You can’t say, ‘Listen, I have depression,’ because police officers have a very narrow view of mental illness. As soon as you say that you have a mental health problem, you’re a ‘nutbar’, and you’re finished.” Anderson has told colleagues he trusts about his experience, but does not feel safe speaking openly about it, even though he feels his experience has made him a better officer, enhancing his skills and ability to help people. He says he is not a risk to his fellow officers, and feels he is liked, trusted and respected by the officers he works closely with.

Anderson believes that change in the culture will only happen with education, particularly for senior officers for whom mental illness among police is a “new” phenomenon. He says that supervisors need training to be aware of the early signs and symptoms of depression, and need to develop the knowledge and skills to offer appropriate help rather than automatically initiating discipline when there is a problem.

Today Officer Anderson loves his job in uniform patrol, and enjoys a healthy work/life balance. His personal journey has been difficult and painful. He credits his recovery to incredible support from his wife, his family and friends, and his good fortune in having access to a psychiatrist whom he could trust. He willingly speaks privately to fellow officers who approach him unofficially, in obvious need of psychiatric assistance. His hope is that some day these officers will be able to say out loud, “I am depressed and I need help.”


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