Toronto Police Board says no to mental health standard, for now

Watch above: Widow of a Toronto Police officer wants changes in the department to help others suffering from PTSD. Christina Stevens reports. 

TORONTO – The Toronto Police Services Board voted Thursday not to immediately adopt a national standard for addressing mental health in the workplace: They want to think about it some more, first.

That was disheartening news to Heidi Rogers, whose husband Richard Rogers, a 24-year veteran of the police force, killed himself in July.

“I’m a little saddened that they didn’t immediately agree to adopt the standard,” she said. “They want a committee first. Committee, it’s all about talking. The standard would have been about action. So that’s where we’re falling flat, we need action.”

The standard would help the police service establish leadership on mental health issues and teach them how to maintain confidentiality and collect data.  The framework would also help the police establish their own policy and identify possible mental health hazards.

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Richard, who was 45, suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and was trying to get help from the police force. His wife claims neither the police force or the union offered any help.

“When he first came forward, it was a two-hour meeting where he was belittled, humiliated; he told me they brought him to tears,” she said. “It was the worst two hours of his life. He was told he was useless, that he was out of control, emasculating. An unbelievably harsh reaction to someone saying ‘I need help.’”

PTSD among Canada’s first responders has come to the fore after the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, a non-profit that works with emergency responders after traumatic events, created a running tally of suicides among Canada’s police officers, firefighters, paramedics and corrections officers.

Twenty-three first responders have killed themselves since April, including a high-profile police officer in Ottawa who was recently found dead in his office.

But the Toronto Police Services Board isn’t ready to adopt standards dictated in a Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace policy designed shaped by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

The standard describes itself as a “voluntary set of guidelines, tools and resources focused on promoting employees’ psychological health and preventing psychological harm due to workplace factors.”

Instead, the police board will form a subcommittee to investigate mental health with the involvement of officers’ families.

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“One thing I think needs to be acknowledged there’s been an tremendous amount of effort, investment and progress in how we support our members,” Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair said to reporters.

“I think there’s value in applying standards but quite frankly standards in and of themselves don’t go far enough.”

Blair said he’d rather focus on implementing recommendations from former Justice Frank Iacobucci’s report on police confrontations with people in crisis, whose recommendations include hiring officers with a better understanding of mental illness, and equipping them all with both tasers and cameras.

Rogers is glad the police board agreed to include family members on its subcommittee. But she’s still skeptical about the possibility of seeing real change within the force.

“It has to start from the top down. There has to be a change in the police culture and people have to be accountable,” she said. “Without that, nothing is going to change.”

Carleton University professor Linda Duxbury said the stresses of policing in 2014 are far different than they were in 1994.

“One of the stresses of course is they are constantly on camera, they are constantly being judged,” Duxbury said in an interview. “The positive views of the police are being muted and if a police officer does anything wrong or even something that might have bad optics, it’s splashed over the press.”

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While media tend to portray police officers and first responders as stoic heroes bravely facing the worst parts of society, in reality they’ve the same emotional and psychological vulnerabilities as anyone else. And Duxbury says that stoic-hero culture within policing can lead to officers not seeking help for fear of being considered weak.

“In many cases they need that culture to deal with what they have to deal with,” she said. “But on the other hand, that culture, while it’s a strength in some capacities, makes it much more challenging and difficult if you need to reach out and get help.”

She also suggested police officers find it difficult to “turn off.”

“It’s not like a job where you go home and you leave it behind psychologically, and you watch TV, you watch the news, you read a book,” she said. “In a lot of cases they feel if they don’t do their job, someone else’s life is in jeopardy.”

– With files from Christina Stevens 

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