RCMP struggles with more than bad guys

Launch of pilot program one step to confront impact of police-specific stressors

For the typical office worker, a day at work is predictable and usually without incident. But for a police officer, everyday is different, with the possibility of break-and-enters, sexual assaults, car accidents or homicides.

“There’s no regular day for a police officer,” says Rich Boughen, Ottawa-based general director of occupational health and safety at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

“I’ve never had one, anyway. We run into all kinds of stressors because of the job we do, such as going to horrific scenes, investigating tragic events like child abuse or fatal car crashes, where most of the times the victims are innocent.”

The term “compassion fatigue” is common in other professions but police officers are constantly confronted with unspeakable suffering, says Boughen.

“Even though we are called to something, there’s often little we can do about it, because we’re there after the fact.”

While most people would want to sit down on the curb and cry or run away from the scene, an officer must continue on because that’s her job. The problem — what comes next? says Boughen.

“How do you get rid of the stuff that you collect over the years from doing this stuff day in and day out?”

While the RCMP has taken certain steps, such as a critical incident stress debriefing with a mental health professional, “there’s been a lot more that we could have done and have needed to do,” says Jeff Morley, an RCMP officer based in Ottawa and registered psychologist who specializes in trauma.

Pilot project launches in 2010

With that in mind, the RCMP launched a small pilot project in 2010. In January and March, two small groups totalling 14 people from the RCMP came together on Vancouver Island to sit down with Morley and a couple of his colleagues.

The traffic analyst reconstructionists and forensic identification specialists didn’t necessarily have a mental health condition or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but voluntarily agreed to get involved.

Instead of waiting for something horrific to happen and then trying to help people after the fact, this was a chance to do something more proactive than reactive, says Morely.

“We were designing this intervention to try and get at the cumulative buildup of this type of traumatic exposure and take some of the steam off,” he says. “It’s helping employees deal with buildup of the unfixable suffering that they’re exposed to in their work.”

Through the session, officers can normalize their feelings in a safe venue among people experiencing the same issues. By participating with self-minded people who work in the same fields, the trust is higher and there’s a real willingness to partake, says Boughen.

Called resilience education and development, the program is loosely based on the military experience of decompression. The intention is to offload some of the “rocks” accumulated through years of service — such as memories of horrific traffic accidents or hearing someone murdered on the other end of the phone, he says. If those rocks get too heavy, officers may have a mal-adaptive coping mechanism such as self-medication or addiction.

“What we’re trying to do is look at a way to, as best we can, prevent something from happening, prevent them from going off sick by giving them a venue to understand that what police officers do is abnormal to the rest of the public but the reactions they feel are very normal,” says Boughen.

Fighting growing disability rates

There is still plenty of work to do at the force, with unflattering reports of workplace stress among the more than 28,000 members of the RCMP.

The number of Mounties on disability for post-traumatic stress disorder climbed significantly in the past decade, according to an October 2009 story by CBC. Ten officers claimed partial or full disability for PTSD in 1999-2000, compared to 162 officers in 2007-08, and the number of officers on disability for PTSD spiked as high as 208 in 2005-06.

High rates of disability for RCMP members are certainly part of the reason to talk to people about better ways to cope and try to bolster their resilience, says Morley.

“I want to help people… get them while they’re still at work and still healthy, before that cumulative buildup makes them crumble under the weight of it. This isn’t the be-all-and-end-all but it’s a proactive, creative new step to reach out to people before they’re off duty sick or wigging out so that we can get in there and connect with them.”

And awareness has grown around mental health, says Boughen.

“Up to five years ago, as police officers, I don’t think anybody really thought that PTSD or operational stress injury was an issue. It was the military that got that kind of thing in a war zone.”

And one of the psychological criteria for PTSD requires a person to have experienced a near-death situation or grievous bodily harm, he says.

“Police might not ever go through that specific issue but… what we’re finding is that, for compassion fatigue, the symptoms are very similar to those of PTSD — sleep disorder, self-medication, addiction, anxiety, depression.”

So the force should really take a look at off-duty sick time and better understand why the people are away, says Boughen. Obviously the RCMP can’t pry into people’s lives but it can improve by asking, “How are you doing?” and “How can we help?” not “What’s wrong with you?” says Boughen.

Cultural challenges

Also a challenge is the culture, as policing has always had a suck-it-up attitude: “Buckle down and do your job, that’s what we hired you for,” says Boughen.

It’s very tough and if the boss doesn’t respond as you’d like, “it feeds on itself,” he says. “We can do a better job, I think, of really trying to understand that dynamic. We have to be able to give them the back-end support, realizing it does take its toll.”

However, sometimes police culture gets a bad rap, says Morley.

“It’s not that bad and I think it’s changing. That’s not to say we’re all sitting around having a good cry everyday. I mean, it’s police work, you should expect you’re going to probably see a dead body or two. It is part of the job.”

While training sounds like a possible way to prepare for the stresses of the job, when most officers go through initial training or “depot,” they just don’t want to hear about the dangers of the job or mental health issues.

“They give you a lecture or talk about stuff but you’re just so keen and raring to go, you just don’t really have any concept of what you may be in for,” says Morley.

While the pilot project is still in its infancy, “the results have been fantastic,” says Boughen, and he and Morley are hopeful the RCMP will continue with the program.

“I’m very hopeful that based on the feedback and the need that they will find a way, even in the midst of very tight financial times, to get behind that and support them,” says Morley.

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