Certain occupations put workers at increased risk for exposure to traumatic events and operational stress. Canada’s military personnel have been at the forefront as subjects of this research through the past decade. The scope has since expanded to include police, firefighters, paramedics and emergency dispatchers.
The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) has more than 9,000 employees, consisting of 6,200 uniform and more than 2,800 civilian members. There are also about 850 members of the OPP Auxiliary supporting officers in a volunteer capacity.
Through its five provincial communications centres, the OPP responded to about 750,000 calls for service in 2012 — any of which could contribute immediately or over the long term to an operational stress injury (OSI).
In October 2012, the Office of the Ombudsman for Ontario released a special report detailing an investigation into how the OPP and the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services — the OPP’s funding authority — dealt with Ontario police officers affected by OSI. The report directed 28 recommendations at the OPP while six targeted the ministry.
Although the OPP had certain programs in place for members, these were not integrated into a cohesive support system, found the report. Nor were the existing programs well-communicated, which led to confusion about who could access support and how access was gained.
Relying chiefly on anecdotal evidence, the ombudsman’s report concluded OPP officers suffering from OSI were, for the most part, attempting to cope with severe and debilitating psychological trauma through their own resources — sometimes with devastating results.
It encouraged the OPP to address issues such as: reducing the stigma associated with OSI; improving the accessibility of psychological services for members; and developing and integrating OPP-specific mental health programs.
The OPP responded by establishing an OSI Working Group consisting of more than 15 civilian and uniform staff representing all ranks and operational areas at the organization. With a mandate to “conduct a review of the ombudsman’s recommendations; consult broadly with internal and external stakeholders; recommend options to the OPP senior executive team; lead the implementation of response activities; and communicate progress to all stakeholders and the ombudsman,” the scope of the review was broadened by OPP commissioner Chris Lewis to include support for all OPP employees — civilian, uniform, active, retired and members of the OPP Auxiliary.
To engage employees in discussion about OSI, Lewis added “Supporting a Healthy Workforce” to the topics on his intranet blog. And the number of page views and entries to the OSI blog demonstrated members’ heightened interest and engagement on this topic.
Members could remain anonymous but when one member chose to sign by name, others followed suit. This kind of courage is what it takes to reduce the stigma. Putting the faces of colleagues to the stories of trauma emphasizes that OSI or PTSD can affect anyone, regardless of training and preparation.
Several people suggested the OSI Working Group contact people who identified themselves in their posts. Instead — to respect member privacy and the intent of the blog — Lewis and OPP Association president Jim Christie decided members should be invited to contact the OSI Working Group to share their experiences and request a personal consultation if desired.
Through a generic mailbox address, members are required to give some identifying information in order to be contacted, recognizing that any subsequent discussion will be kept confidential. Followup meetings are conducted with trained peer support personnel but are not intended to provide therapeutic support.
The information shared in these meetings is intended to inform recommendations made by the OSI Working Group. To date, several active and retired OPP members have had follow-up sessions to provide input to the group.
A pilot program called “Managing for a Healthy Workplace” is being delivered to senior OPP managers to ensure their role — in managing Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB) claims, requests for workplace accommodations and long-term absences — is clearly understood and they know where to go for information and support to deal with employee concerns.
With the increasing awareness and openness to discuss OSI has come an increased demand for services from the Peer Support Program — the OPP’s front-line crisis intervention and trauma support initiative. Capacity to support members was increased in early 2013 but demand for the program continues to grow and is expected to continue as members seek earlier intervention during the onset or exposure phases of OSI, rather than awaiting actual debilitation.
The OSI Working Group also launched an internal webpage for members, and a health and wellness page on the OPP public website, www.opp.ca, that can be accessed by employees’ family members, OPP Auxiliary staff, retired and former members and employees who are absent from the workplace.
All members and their families have access to free, confidential support on a 24-7 basis through the external employee assistance program (EAP) which offers counselling on many issues including stress reactions, anxiety and stress, substance misuse or abuse, depression, marital and family problems, financial issues, legal issues, child care and elder care.
OPP members anywhere in Ontario are also able to borrow materials from the OPP’s Eric Silk Library. It houses an extensive collection on psychological and physical health and is being actively promoted by the OSI Working Group as an information resource for members and their families.
The group is also researching and consulting with other agencies to develop a mental health strategy specifically designed for the OPP. To be successful, the strategy must be proactive. It must emphasize prevention through education and training, and provide members with the tools required to develop, implement and maintain lifelong habits for good mental health.
Along with early intervention, the strategy must also provide active support to members who are suffering from any mental health issues including OSI.
Recognizing that resilience is integral to mitigate the threat of OSI, OPP recruits undergo additional psychological screening and resilience training. Additional resilience training modules are proposed for inclusion in annual officer block training or recertification programs.
A sub-committee of the OSI Working Group is evaluating psychological safeguarding options within the OPP, including the potential development of a multi-tiered “Safeguard Program.”
The program currently addresses identified high-risk areas of policing that pose unique threats to psychological health, such as the Child Sexual Exploitation Unit and undercover operations. Encouraging all members to have annual mental health checkups is part of broadening safeguarding practices.
Acknowledging the enormity of the assigned task, the OPP sees the OSI project as an opportunity to create a flexible yet durable OPP-specific psychological support system. The project has allowed group members to cut across rank or job status to explore better ways of doing things for all members.
Behind every conversation is the ethical imperative to support each other as human beings and as colleagues — some of whom have borne the brunt of psychological injury in the process of doing their job.
For more information on the OSI Working Group, visit www.opp.ca and look under the “Resources” tab.