OHS Canada Magazine

Public-safety personnel screen higher for symptoms of mental disorders: survey

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September 5, 2017
By Jeff Cottrill

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Survey asked workers to report own symptoms

(Canadian OH&S News) — A recent online survey has found that public-safety personnel (PSP) in Canada report symptoms of potential mental disorders at higher levels than those in other professions do, according to a new report from the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment.

Published on the website of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry on Aug. 28, “Mental Disorder Symptoms among Public Safety Personnel in Canada” examined the responses of 5,813 PSP who had responded to the survey between Sept. 2016 and Jan. 2017. About 44 per cent of the respondents screened positive for symptom clusters consistent with at least one mental-health disorder — a rate considerably higher than the ten per cent for the general population previously reported by Statistics Canada.

“We expected that it would be high, but I think 44 per cent was higher than I expected,” said Dr. Nick Carleton, a psychology professor at the University of Regina and the study’s lead author, regarding the results.

Respondents consisted largely of correctional workers, dispatchers, firefighters, paramedics and police officers, with a few Coast Guard workers and border-services personnel in the mix. Among the disorders of which respondents reported symptoms were anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dr. Carleton stressed that the study was based not on diagnostic interviews, but on a self-reporting questionnaire.


“So if you scored high enough relative to other published cut-off scores on these validated measures, then we would say you had screened positive for that cluster,” he explained, “such that it’s consistent with reports we hear from people who have been diagnosed with those kinds of mental-health disorders.”

The study was financed in part by the federal government, according to information from the University of Regina’s website.

“While the results of this research are troubling, the increased reporting among public-safety officers is a sign of progress in reducing the stigma associated with post-traumatic stress injuries,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said in a press statement about the study on Aug. 28. “This research will help inform our next steps in developing a coordinated action plan to address this issue.

“The Government of Canada is pleased to continue to support the research of the University of Regina and its research partners on this issue, and I look forward to working with all levels of government and leaders in the public-safety community to advance this important work.”

While about 32.5 per cent of the respondents were female, one of the study’s curious findings was that women were far more likely to screen positive for symptoms of mental-health disorders — to an extent that was “statistically significant,” according to Dr. Carleton.

“We don’t have enough information to explain why that is,” he said about the gender variance. “Part of the challenge might be that women experience those careers differently than men do.” It does not necessarily mean that men experience these symptoms at lower levels, he added, but just that women report them differently.

Dr. Carleton suggested providing evidence-based education and treatment options on mental-health disorders for PSP, as a way to help mitigate the effects and reduce stigma.

“The more we educate our organizational leaders and the more we educate our organizational members, I think the better off we’re going to be,” he said. “I still see lots of evidence of confusion with what a mental-health disorder is.” Proper education can lead to earlier intervention, he added.

The research team is planning to release an online tool with which PSP can anonymously assess themselves for these symptoms and compare the results to the general population. “Hopefully then, that allows them to make a decision about whether they should go and seek help earlier.”

“Mental Disorder Symptoms among Public Safety Personnel in Canada” is viewable online at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0706743717723825.


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