Skip to Main Content

Superbe nouvelle! Nous migrons vers un nouveau site Web; au cours des prochains mois, vous pourriez voir un mélange de pages nouvelles et anciennes.

We’ve made major strides in the last few years in raising awareness around mental health, but there’s still a key barrier that is preventing many of us from taking that first step in seeking the help we need.

Beyond external stigma based on long-standing societal misconceptions around mental health, there’s an internal story we tell ourselves. It’s a story where we minimize the feelings we’re having, or even shame ourselves for feeling them in the first place.

As psychologists, we often see patients struggling with internal stigma around their mental health. They feel it’s not okay—or socially acceptable—to be vulnerable, so they internalize their feelings, often for a very long time. Those feelings fester and grow, resulting in negative self-talk that impacts their self-esteem and makes them feel inadequate. This, in turn, prevents them from seeking help and a vicious cycle ensues.

For first-responders, internal stigma is even further heightened. Their work environment is centred around protecting and assisting others. They are expected to be strong, capable and in control at all times, which leads them to internalize their stress and emotions and ultimately suffer in silence.

In law enforcement in particular, officers are expected to hide their emotions on scene no matter how difficult the situation. The higher the expectation to self-regulate emotions in this way, the higher the perception that it’s not okay to share feelings, even when officers are off duty. This cycle of self-stigma feeds into feelings of worthlessness for not being able to handle the emotional challenges they are experiencing.

We know that feelings of stress, anxiety and low self-worth do not go away on their own either. In fact, the research shows that over time internalizing emotions can lead to a host of serious physical and mental health issues. Chronic stress and anxiety, for example, can lead to burnout, fatigue, depression, gastrointestinal issues, cardiovascular conditions and even some forms of cancer. Beyond health impacts, there can be relationship problems and effects on workplace performance too. One study showed that officers missed an average of eight days of work every year due to emotional and mental fatigue (Duxbury and Higgins, 2012; Workplace culture and the Ontario Provincial Police). It’s also estimated that 10 per cent of uniformed officers are on leave from the workplace due to mental health issues at any given time (EPS high leave rate: troubled officers strain resources | Edmonton Journal).

While we can’t escape the stressors we experience in our lives, both in and outside of work, we can start to destigmatize them by acknowledging they exist. We can also keep emotions from accumulating and causing negative impacts on our mental and physical health by implementing effective coping strategies. Those with more knowledge about mental health are more likely to access mental health services. As stigma depletes, understanding and empathy improve, resulting in better morale and improved job satisfaction and performance. It’s a win-win all around and has far-reaching benefits on work performance, morale, health and overall well-being.

Next time, we will delve further into effective coping strategies to prevent burnout and other mental health issues, as well as how to spot others who may be struggling with internal stigma.

About the Authors:  Dr. Nina Fusco is chief psychologist and Dr. Jennifer Short is a psychologist at Calian. They work closely with law enforcement clients providing psychological services to address their unique needs, from suitability assessments and candidate selection to resilience training and mental wellness. Click here to learn more about Calian Psychological Services.