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Polices service talk a big talk, but the stigma continues

July 2019

Re:  “Mental health stigma persists at police service, veteran officer says,” (Barrie Advance, 9 May 2019):  I can relate to the lack of support that Cst Brad Traves talks about. 

I’m a retired police officer who also suffers from PTSD and I received absolutely no support from my police service or even from my police association (the ones who are supposed to protect the protectors).  I worked for a small town service and at the time, we didn’t even have an Employee Assistance Program (they do now!). The only benefit I had was a $500 allowance in the employee benefit plan for psychological services.  At $500, that gets you about 2.5 visits with a psychologist.  After that, it’s out of your own pocket.

As for supervisors noticing a change in demeanor and asking if anything is wrong, this is a very ineffective way of getting officers to open up.  Admitting that you are suffering can expose you to career implications, ridicule, isolation and in some cases, police act charges. 

I was drinking heavily off-duty (sometime on-duty too) and would regularly report for duty with alcohol in my system.  I was never falling down drunk at work, but you can’t have any alcohol in your system when you report for duty.  Only once did a fellow officer confront me about smelling alcohol on my breath, but he didn’t report me to the supervising sergeant. 

Additionally, there were other signs that something was wrong with me, but if anyone noticed them, they either misinterpreted them or ignored them. Some police services are now training all their officers, not just supervisors, to spot signs of mental health issues but this initiative came too late for me.

In the wake of three suicide deaths of veteran Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officers in 2018, OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes ordered the OPP to undertake an internal review in hopes of finding solutions to the apparent crisis sweeping the service, one that has seen at least 25 active members and nine retired members (as of 2019) commit suicide in the past 30 years. Round table discussions were held across the province and although I wasn’t OPP, I was invited to take part and I did have a few things to say.

The problem is how do you come forward with problems without being labeled as a whiner, “a problem employee”, someone who expects to be accommodated for every little difficulty; how to determine between those who have real medical issues and those who just don’t feel like doing their job and doing it properly.

How do you handle an officer who shows up to work with alcohol on their breath?  Do you put them in the disciplinary process, which may exacerbate any issues they have, or do you treat it as a medical issue and compassionately get them help?

If you keep them out of the disciplinary process, does that signal to everyone else who just likes to drink that if you get caught, all they have to do is say “it’s a medical issue”?

Even if it truly is a medical issue and you get the officer help and they relapse, how do you handle it now?  Having a mental health issue is hard enough, but relapsing can have a devastating impact on those who are suffering by making them feel even worse.  They already feel like they are a failure; “Why can’t I keep it together?”

This is one reason why some officers will go to great lengths to conceal their troubles, including alcoholism, often until it’s too late.

Sometimes those who do come out with mental health issues are eventually forced out because the organization doesn’t want the bother of them anymore. This is why so many officers keep quiet and suffer in silence…….until they no longer can and then they crash and burn (literally or figuratively).

It’s not enough to say that officers who are having problems should come forward and alert their supervisors. The suffering officers have to trust the person they are opening up to and know that they will be treated with compassion and understanding. Someone non-threatening can go a long way in helping a suffering officer open up. It’s hard to say now what would have gotten me to finally open up now, as the suffering officer has to be ready to open up and ask for help, but it’s a better option that not.

I don’t have the perfect solution as it would vary from person to person, but a good start would be with your police association; the ones who are supposed to protect the protectors.

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The original article that inspired the above article:

Mental health stigma persists at Barrie police, veteran officer says”If you say those four letters — PTSD — your career is over.”

Rick Vanderlinde, Barrie Advance, 8 May 2019

A veteran Barrie police officer who had an emotional breakdown that led to disciplinary charges says there is a lack of mental health support for officers.

“They say they support you, but they don’t,” Const. Brad Traves said. “They have posters and they tweet out on mental health day but when it comes down to it, you are not supported.”

Traves, who pleaded guilty to discreditable conduct and insubordination in March, told simcoe.com stigma surrounding post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues continues within Barrie’s police service.

“A supervisor once told me if you say those four letters — PTSD — you are f….d, your career is over. Against all my instincts, I went to HR for help.”

Traves, who has been diagnosed with cumulative PTSD, said there has been much focus on the OPP after a spate of suicides in recent years but a dismissive culture is also pervasive in municipal police services.

The 23-year officer’s troubles began on Dec. 10, 2017 when he and his partner were attempting to take down a suspect who was high on meth. They fought with the man for a gruelling 15 minutes, struggling to get him under control.

“He was super human. We tasered him 18 times with no effect. I thought we were going to have to shoot the guy,” Traves said.

In the days that followed, Traves was still feeling the emotional effects of the fight.

“I couldn’t sleep. Days later I was still exhausted. That call opened up a flood of memories that I have been through over my career. I knew I had a problem.”

When Traves went to a health and wellness co-ordinator for help four days after the incident, the situation quickly unravelled. 

According to an agreed statement of facts at a March 13 disciplinary hearing, a heated argument erupted about a job posting and police service employees heard Traves say “Go f..k yourself” and “No, I’m the asshole.”

Traves went to his car for 20 minutes then returned to apologize.

“I actually hugged her,” he said. “It was very emotional.”

Three days later, Traves went back to explain his situation again. But that meeting ended with Traves yelling “you just don’t get it” followed by another outburst of profanity.

Traves knows his behaviour was inappropriate, but believes the managers should have recognized he was in the throes of a mental health crisis.

“We train as front-line officers to recognize when someone is in a mental health crisis. When they have an officer in crisis they should be able to recognize that.”

Instead, the service initiated an investigation and charged Traves with discreditable conduct and insubordination on Feb. 9, 2018.

“You can’t go for help — you can’t have a bad day … They called this conduct of a serious nature. To jump to this is where I have a difficulty.”

Police services have several other disciplinary options short of Police Services Act charges.

In a written response, Barrie Police spokesperson Peter Leon said “the manner and conduct of our members is always something that is taken very seriously, whether it occurs in the community, at a call for service or when dealing with any member of our service.”

Traves admits he has been in trouble before, facing disciplinary charges as part of the OPP’s elite tactical unit in 2004.

He said he has been passed over for promotions several times, saying his need to “speak up” may be a factor.

In his written disciplinary ruling, hearing officer Terence Kelly said Traves’s outbursts were made in “the heat of the moment” and likely wouldn’t happen again.

Kelly also commented on the stigma surrounding PTSD and police.

“The negativity toward those living with PTSD is unacceptable in this day and age and it behooves those of us who are involved in such circumstances to offer encouragement and not label anyone who suffers from this condition as unproductive.”

Traves received no penalty other than to continue with counselling he secured on his own.

“To this day, since that first day I went in for help, they have not offered me any help,” Traves said. “You are out here on an island on your own.”

Leon, the police spokesperson, said the service offers counselling to officers through an external employee assistant program.

“If their demeanour changes, it’s something a supervisor would notice and ask if there is something going on,” he said. “There’s no reason to divulge if they don’t wish to and they can call upon the external health care.”

Officers are debriefed if they are involved in a traumatic situation and reminded of resources at their disposal.

“I think one of the biggest things that police officers have come to realize is that when it comes to mental health, it’s about removing the stigma that’s attached,” Leon said.

Traves said he tried to push through his symptoms until his family doctor diagnosed him with a psychological work injury. He has been off work on workers’ compensation benefits since last May.

“It got so I was not sleeping, not eating, drinking too much,” he said. “It was becoming a safety issue for my fellow officers.”

Traves said he knows his decision to speak to the media will lead to reprisals. But as a mental health advocate, who offers peer support for other officers, he believes the issue must come to light.

“I want to be part of the solution. Sometimes you have to step up.”

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/polices-service-talk-a-big-talk-but-the-stigma-continues/

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