November 18th, 2018

The human being behind the badge


By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on September 12, 2018.

Sometimes, even the helpers are in need of help.

Monday’s World Suicide Prevention Day event in Lethbridge highlighted the fact that first responders can fall victim to the darkness of depression. And depression, taken to an extreme, can lead to suicidal thoughts.

One of the presenters at the Lethbridge event knows very well what first responders face, based on her own experiences working as a police officer and volunteer firefighter. She spoke of her own struggles, and of the lack of communication about the subject in public service sectors.

It’s a topic that has been in the news recently. The suicides of three Ontario Provincial Police officers in August prompted calls for more mental health support for first responders in the law enforcement community.

“It’s heartbreaking, you know,” Chief Paul Pedersen of the Greater Sudbury Police Service said in a CTV News story at the time. “This is a tough profession and it’s a profession that asks a lot of its people. And when we see the profession being so heavy on individuals that they see the only way out is taking their own life, it’s tragic.”

In the wake of the shooting rampage in early August that killed three RCMP constables in Moncton, N.B., a clinical psychologist said in a Canadian Press story that police officers can develop operational stress injuries (OSI), particularly those who have seen colleagues and friends killed in the line of duty.

“It is important to understand that behind the badge, we have a human being,” said Katy Kamkar, who works with Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and who is also director of Badge For Life Canada, an organization that provides support for police and corrections personnel dealing with psychological injuries. “We run away from trauma while [police officers] go towards it to face it.”

In 2017, the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry published results from Canada’s first national survey examining operational stress injuries among first responders which found they are much more likely to develop a mental disorder than the general population. Of the 5,813 survey participants, 44.5 per cent “screened positive for clinically significant symptom clusters consistent with one or more mental disorders.” The rate for the general population is 10 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

Psychologytoday.com, on its webpage highlighting World Suicide Prevention Day, posed the question: “How does a person who was once hardy enough to pass a demanding application process, a rigorous psychological screening, and an arduous training program become so overwhelmed that suicide is the only way out?”

Many people experience job stress, but first responders face a kind of trauma that few of us can even imagine experiencing. They sometimes encounter horrific situations and often put their lives on the line in the call of duty. But they’re called upon to be strong, to handle the trauma and soldier on in order to do the job we expect them to perform.

But, as noted earlier, there’s a human being behind the badge, and trauma can become a cancer that slowly erodes an individual’s mental health. First responders need the mental health supports that will enable them to function in a difficult and stressful occupation.

On Tuesday, Ontario’s Erie County announced a five-year, $1.65-million crisis intervention training grant to help provide expanded law enforcement education on mental health issues. Ontario’s provincial police force is expected to unveil changes to its mental health support system in response to the recent suicides of three officers.

First responders across the country need access to the mental health support that will keep them from falling prey to the stresses of their challenging jobs. We count on them to repeatedly and unflinchingly come to the aid of victims in emergency situations. We need to do all we can to ensure they don’t become victims themselves.

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