By Jason Contant
Ontario’s ombudsman will explore how the provincial police service deals administratively with operational stress injuries (OSI) in response to the receipt of almost three dozen complaints from officers.
On March 31, ombudsman André Marin announced he would launch an investigation into the Ontario Provincial Police’s (OPP) handling of OSI, described as any persistent psychological difficulty that police personnel experience as a result of operational duties. Specifically, these effects include depression, anxiety, addictions and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Symptoms of PTSD vary according to the individual and nature of his or her experience, notes information from Veterans Affairs Canada in Ottawa. Still, most people experience strong reactions following traumatic events that may include the following: feelings of panic or anxiety; a desire to avoid anything attached to the event; increased consumption of alcohol or abuse of other substances; difficulties concentrating, disorientation and/or memory problems; sleep disturbance or excessive alertness; trouble controlling moods; and intrusive thoughts about the event.
Ombudsman Ontario, based in Toronto, has received more than 30 complaints from active and retired officers. In speaking with the officers and their families, Linda Williamson, the agency’s director of communications, notes that “some of their stories go back several years, while others are more recent or relate to ongoing issues.”
The officers “raised concerns about a lack of understanding and awareness of OSI in the provincial police service and alleged that sufferers are often ostracized and stigmatized,” notes a statement from the ombudsman’s office. Marin reports that “the attitude towards members with these conditions tends to be, ‘Suck it up and get on with your life.'”
The investigation, to be conducted by the Special Ombudsman Response Team, will include examining the support, services, education and training offered by the OPP to its members regarding OSI. But beyond that, circumstances illustrated by worker complaints also demand examination of “the culture within the OPP towards [OSI],” Marin says.
Jim Christie, interim president of the Ontario Provincial Police Association (OPPA) in Barrie, Ontario, says officers pride themselves on “getting the job done.” As such, Christie suggests current police culture does not foster early identification of PTSD or provide officers the level of comfort that may be necessary to come forward and disclose symptoms.
Even if OPP members do come forward, he points out, “officers reveal things like ‘troubles at home,’ but not that they are near to ‘losing it.'”
Christie emphasizes that while there is a need to change police culture around PTSD, it is also critically important that any such efforts go hand-in-hand with meaningful work accommodation. Far too often, he says, when an officer approaches Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, the employer adopts an adversarial position to deny benefits.
That approach serves to exacerbate “the officer’s symptoms, sense of betrayal, and feelings of isolation and hopelessness,” Christie contends. “Such cases are treated like any other workplace accommodation, even though there are unique characteristics and significant challenges to a successful PTSD accommodation.”
OPPA officials would support having police forces develop a comprehensive PTSD approach, he says. OSI is addressed through the OPP’s employee assistance program, run by an external provider, says Inspector Dave Ross, a spokesperson for the police service. The OPP also provides a critical incident stress response team, a provincial trauma support team (which can travel to the scene of an incident) and an in-house psychologist.
“We all know that police officers face difficult and dangerous situations in order to keep our communities safe and that all OPP members may become involved in potentially traumatic incidents in the course of their work,” says OPP commissioner Chris Lewis.
But OSI is not solely an issue for those on the front lines. “It’s not just the uniform police officer, the civilians, those who work in our communications centres doing dispatching, often are involved in stressful situations that can impact them,” Ross says.
“It goes without saying that we recognize this as an important venture and we look forward to working with the ombudsman and seeing if there’s any room for improvement on how we assist our members,” he says.
In addition to complaints from OPP officers, Marin says his office has also heard concerns raised by officers with municipal police services or their family members. Although he does not have jurisdiction over municipal services, the ombudsman intends to investigate the administrative processes used by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services to address OSI among services across the province.
The RCMP is also beyond the jurisdiction of Ombudsman Ontario, Williamson notes, but contact has been made to help get a handle on the approach being taken around OSI by the national police force.
Williamson says the hope is that all interviews and fact-finding efforts will be completed by the end of August, with a written report likely to follow a few months after that.
Jason Contant is editor of CANADIAN OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH & SAFETY NEWS; Angela Stelmakowich is editor of OHS CANADA.
There are some signs of light at the end of the tunnel. “In the last 18 months, we have seen a real shift in mental health issues as the whole area is becoming de-stimatized,” says Paula Allen, national practice leader, health consulting for Morneau Shepell Ltd. in Toronto, a human resource firm that provides, among other services, employee assistance programs.
The company recently established a Mental Health Advisory Board, made up of specialists from across the country, to better advise clients who have questions around mental health and the increasing associated costs.
These issues can carry a high toll, both in terms of individual health and corporate finances. The Mental Health Commission of Canada pegs the cost of health care use, lost workdays and work disruptions at $51 billion annually.
Advisory board member Martin Shain, Ph.D. “has estimated that $3 billion to $11 billion could be saved annually in Canada if mental injuries caused by the actions of employers are prevented,” notes a statement from Morneau Shepell.
Having difficulty coping with stress can reveal itself in numerous ways, adds information from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) in Hamilton, Ontario.
The signs and symptoms may be physical, such as headaches, grinding teeth, shortness of breath, high blood pressure, muscle aches, increased perspiration and frequent illness; psychosocial, such as irritability, defensiveness, mood swings, apathy, slowed thinking or racing thoughts, and feelings of helplessness, hopelessness or of being trapped; and behavioural, such as overeating or loss of appetite, quickness to argue, procrastination, withdrawal or isolation from others, neglect of responsibility and poor job performance.