Just a trigger away

  A higher percentage of police in Canada have been clinically diagnosed with PTSD than Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) soldiers who returned from deployment in Afghanistan, according to studies Diverge Media compared from Canada.ca and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

Police need more hours spent training and better mental health supports.

Defund the police? — How about we tackle the issues lying deeper in an officer’s mind.

According to a discussion paper by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Canadian police officers are disproportionately affected by mental illness. When compared to the general population at about 10 per cent, 36.7 per cent of municipal and provincial police and 50.2 per cent of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) suffer from a mental disorder.

According to a study of two urban Canadian police departments in the CAMH’s discussion paper:

  • 52 per cent of officers reported moderate to severe stress (11 per cent extremely severe); 
  • 88 per cent reported moderate to severe anxiety (12 per cent extremely severe); 
  • 87 per cent reported moderate to severe depression (13 per cent extremely severe); and 
  • 29 per cent were in the clinical diagnostic range for PTSD. (The lifetime prevalence rate of PTSD for all Canadians is about 9 per cent).

Before we continue any further let’s go more into detail on what exactly PTSD is.

What is PTSD?

According to psychguides.com, PTSD is brought on by witnessing a terrifying, life-threatening event. Common symptoms of the illness are; severe anxiety, flashbacks, uncontrollable thoughts and nightmares. Symptoms can worsen and last for years — so it is best for people suffering to seek treatment as soon as possible.

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), there are three types of PTSD;

  • Acute PTSD, where symptoms last less than three months;
  • Chronic PTSD, where symptoms last three months or longer and;
  • Delayed-onset PTSD, where symptoms manifest for a minimum of six months following a traumatic event.

According to frontiers in psychology: the role of moral distress and injury toward traumatization (compassion fatigue and PTSD) has never been studied in police empirically.

Moral distress was defined by professor Andrew Jameton in 1984 as being:

“The experiences of painful feelings and psychological disequilibrium that takes place when nurses are aware of a morally proper decision that needs to be made without being able to make it, usually as a result of various hurdles: institution policy, lack of time, protocol and so forth.”

Frontiers also mentions “God’s syndrome,” which refers to a police officer’s attempt to respond to all emergency calls, save all victims and support all those who suffer. At the end of the day, first responders are not always able to protect or support all victims, or arrest violent criminals. When police cannot help everyone successfully, the officers may then experience moral distress.

On top of that, they mention about 25 per cent of a police sample reported killing or seriously injuring a suspect in the line of duty. Of the 60 common operational and organizational stressors common to the profession, officers listed killing someone during a use of force encounter as the most stressful experience when it came to coping with the aftermath. 

So can you see where this is a problem for police?

Jeff Morley, a police clinical psychologist once stated that moral distress refers to an on-going “unfixable suffering” that can accumulate over time during service and eventually lead to compassion fatigue.

He went on to say researchers have argued that moral distress within caregiving professions may eventually lead a professional to compassion fatigue, avoidance of response to certain critical incidents, emotional paralysis and even job resignation.

Mental health strategies

“Avoidance of response to certain critical incidents.” Meaning they may be hesitant to respond to important calls that involve dangerous situations — but that’s when we need police the most.

Are we as Canadians okay with nearly 30 per cent of our police forces falling within the clinical range of PTSD? Are we okay with 87 per cent of officers reporting moderate to severe depression?

Aren’t we being naive to expect great community policing when we refuse to acknowledge the mental health issues that gravely affect those tasked with protecting our communities?

This is why it’s extremely important that police officers receive proper treatment for PTSD.

The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) do acknowledge that many Canadians, including their own officers do suffer from mental disorders — although PTSD is only mentioned once in their mental health strategy.

They do state that they have expanded mental health education, training, programs and resources for their officers. Many of these resources expand to their immediate families and the community at large. But it is unknown if PTSD is one of their main initiatives.

The RCMP, who is much more heavily impacted by mental health issues, also has a mental health strategy. Their vision is to;

“Enhance the health, safety and resiliency of its employees by:

  • Consistently using, and increasing awareness of existing programs and policies;
  • Proactively protecting them from the impacts of psychological risks;
  • Fostering a supportive culture for those directly and indirectly affected by psychological health problems; and
  • Assisting those with psychological health issues in regaining their optimal health and remaining valued productive employees of the RCMP.”

They also stated that an audit of long-term sick leave within the RCMP revealed that about 38 per cent of their members who are off-duty sick for long-term periods have cited mental health as the reason.

This is alarming — isn’t it? That mental health strategy was written in 2014, but imagine how officers are doing now? Hopefully better, but it’s a constant in their profession.

The strategy goes more in depth than the OPP’s, referencing early detection and intervention as one of their main goals. It all seems promising, but officers need to get the support they need as soon as possible.

The sad truth is that police officers in Canada have a higher level of suicidal behaviour than the general population — which is a comparison of about 100,000 officers to 37.06 million people of the general population. (See chart below). 

Defund the police?

With what has happened over the past many weeks and is still happening across the U.S., I can see why there is violence on both sides. While violence of any kind shouldn’t be tolerated, I can begin to see why officers may react the way they have.

  1. They are bad cops and are using excessive force.
  2. They are finding it hard to respond to interactions properly, like they were trained because they could be experiencing mental health issues while on the job.

While bad cops still exist, I think it’s important to note that there are still many great officers serving the communities in both Canada and the United States.

While there are still officers who are not doing their jobs correctly — ‘to serve and protect’ — defunding the police is maybe not the right course of action.

Many activists, including those in the Waterloo Region, want to see police forces defunded — $29 million of their $180 million budget ($200 million this year). This means diverting the funds they already receive yearly to put towards community-based social initiatives to help impoverished and radicalized groups.

This also means changing the way police work. For example, employing another team of public employees to respond to traffic accidents and other less-threatening incidents.

Cities across Canada have already done this by opening up collision reporting centres, where all involved in a motor accident go to report a collision, as long as it’s not too severe. 

But I can only guess this will cost taxpayers just as much or almost as much money as it would for a police officer to attend the scene.

You can’t rely on social workers to respond to calls for mental health because these types of calls can escalate and become dangerous. 

In a Global News article, Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer noted some of these exact points.

“Many of these calls we go to involve people in severe crisis, sometimes having psychotic episodes, sometimes armed with weapons that are a danger to themselves or others,” he said in the article. 

He went on to say in the article that they see people jumping off bridges or wading in water to drown themselves. They have even had people set their apartment on fire and others armed with knives. 

Chief Palmer doesn’t think a social worker or a psych nurse can respond to those calls because they simply aren’t trained. 

Police are trained for the absolute worst case scenario. They show up at a mental health call and then an individual turns violent towards the officers. Those officers are trained to respond to these calls and ensure they and any civilians in the area go home to their families safely. 

A social worker who is better trained to deal with the mental health aspects of a call is not equipped to handle the situation if the individual being dealt with becomes violent and lashes out towards the worker or the public. That is why we send a police officer who is trained in the use of lethal force, so the worst case scenario can be addressed safely. 

This lends to a different line of questioning, why not have a mental health police unit? A unit designed to specialize in mental health calls that pays a bit more, but requires courses similar to a social worker in order to specialize as a fully trained mental health officer? Why not incentivize better policing?

For that to be possible, we need to have better mental health treatments for our frontline police officers who deal with the worst elements of humanity as a part of their job on a daily basis.

Some breakthroughs in regards to treating mental health issues like PTSD have been recently discovered in the past few years.  


A study by Dr. Fang Liu, a senior scientist and Head of Molecular Neuroscience in CAMH’s Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute has identified a new protein complex in PTSD patients. 

She and her team conducted a study in which all participants had experienced trauma, but only some had developed PTSD. Through a blood test, they found that the protein complex was significantly elevated in those with PTSD. 

After that study Liu and her team developed a peptide to target and disrupt the protein complex and in turn, it could reduce or even prevent PTSD symptoms. The peptide is still undergoing lab testing before they can conduct human trials. 

According to a study from the British Journal of Psychiatry, Canada has the highest prevalence of PTSD among the 24 countries included in the study. It also said that nine point two per cent of Canadians will develop PTSD in their lifetime. We are higher than war zones like Iraq and Israel.

Other common treatments for PSTD are; 

  1. Prescription medications if you also are experiencing depression, having sleeping problems or are unwilling to try treatments;
  2. Group therapy (confide in others);
  3. Cognitive-behavioural therapies;
  4. Stress management;
  5. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing and;
  6. Many other therapies including heavily stigmatized ones.

While there are still many promising new treatments for those suffering with PTSD, there are also many other ways to treat the illness.

Key takeaways

  • Canada has been identified as having the highest prevalence for PTSD;
  • Many Canadian police officers suffer terribly from mental illnesses like PTSD;
  • Police need better mental health supports like stated in a CBC article from Oct., 2019;
  • Defunding the police can’t work 100 per cent the way activists want it to;
  • Police organizations have mental health strategies that should be re-visited to focus more on PTSD without beating around the bushes.
  • Police should require better and more extensive training, as training requirements to become a police officer vary by country. (More to come on this topic soon).

Diverge Media is fully funded out of our own pockets. We have a vision to create great consistent videos, articles and podcasts as we go along our journey.

At this time I am working full-time elsewhere while working on the stories that matter during my spare time. I have even taken time off work next week to go to Ottawa to bring you something special. (Stay tuned).

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