BEHIND THE BADGE: Police often grapple silently with mental illness

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Cornwall Community Police Service (CCPS) Police Chief Dan Parkinson.

CORNWALL, Ontario - Dave MacLean can still remember the sights and sounds of a tragic accident nearly 10 years ago that left a young Cornwall girl injured after being struck by a car.

It's not the typical "cop story" that creates headlines. The young girl, thankfully, survived. And MacLean has seen his fair share of homicides and sudden deaths that have left him otherwise fine.

But because the young girl was the same age as his own daughter, the images from the scene are something he has played over in his head many times.

"That one bothered me, and it stuck with me," he said.

Many police officers, like MacLean - who is also the president of the Cornwall Police Association - are taking stock of such incidents as services place a priority on mental health and identifying problems before tragedy strikes.

And tragedy has unfortunately become a theme among front-line officers as of late.

Ian Matthews, a 25-year veteran of the Hamilton police service, shot himself before Christmas and his death has become a rallying cry for officers and their superiors as many try to cast a spotlight on an issue that for years has been kept in the shadows.

"I think in looking at the history of mental health in policing there's always been a stigma attached to getting help," said MacLean. "The stigma is you’re weak, you're not able to do the job and you can’t handle it.

"But the studies that have been done and the professionals looking at law enforcement in general show the long-term effects of the job are substantial, psychologically."

Indeed. A report released last year by Ontario Ombudsman André Marin said 23 OPP officers have taken their own lives since 1989. That number exceeds the sum of officers killed on duty over the same time period - which means more police have died at their own hands, than by some other tragedy.

Police services are responding to the problem, but the issue is ensuring officers avail themselves of help when it is provided.

"We are very active in debriefings following traumatic events," said MacLean. "It's automatic, whether you want to go or not there is a very strong message coming from management, as well as the association, that you need to be at these things.

"Counselling has become a part of policing."

Cornwall police chief Dan Parkinson said his service has created an "early warning system" of sorts.

"Things such as absenteeism, personal appearance, public complaints, departmental motor vehicle collisions, and general demeanor are observed and reported on through our human resources department," he said. "Once a certain threshold is reached in any number of behavioral dimensions, a report is generated that triggers an internal response to meet the need of the employee."

Parkinson said because more attention is being placed on issues surrounding mental health, police services have little choice but to face those challenges head on.

"A recent Ontario Ombudsmen’s review of how the Ontario Provincial Police handled (post-traumatic stress disorder) within their service was less than complimentary as to how they...had not done a very good job of early recognition and treatment of occupational related stress," he said. "The whole arena of understanding and acceptance in relation to mental health in the police workplace is creating a much more effective response. It is being recognized as being as debilitating and as serious as a work-related physical injury."

Cornwall police service members have recently completed a national study, which details the effects of psychological stresses within law enforcement. The results of the study are not being released, said Parkinson, but he suggested there are likely to be specific areas of policing that will require more focus in helping officers grapple with mental health issues.

"All our front-line supervisory personnel will be exposed to training at the end of January to assist them in early identification of work-related stress," said Parkinson. "We actually believe that we, as an organization, are ahead of many other police services when it comes to our sensitivity to work related stress and being proactive in dealing with early indicators of mental health concerns within our workforce."

MacLean said time will be the ultimate judge.

"It's going in the right direction, but there's no easy solution to it," he said. "It's something that will evolve as time goes on. It's a huge mountain to climb.

"And everyone is different."

Organizations: Ontario Provincial Police, Cornwall Police Association, Ontario Ombudsmen

Geographic location: CORNWALL, Ontario

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