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Ongoing support essential in helping police officers heal

Dealing with death is difficult for any of us. But for members of police services, the impact can be especially traumatic. Police officers can face death daily, whether it is vehicle accidents, domestic violence, child abuse, homicides or other fatal events. They see people die and people who are dead, and they risk their own lives when they attend calls.

If they witness the death of a child close to the age of their own child, or a person who looks like a family member, it can be especially troubling to them. Additionally, they can experience the death of a fellow officer, which can feel like losing a family member, a spouse or even a part of themselves and it forces them to confront their own mortality. They may experience survivor’s guilt; they may stress over what went wrong and may question what they could have done differently. The effect of these exposures to death can be cumulative and negatively affect the officers’ lives on the job, at home and with friends.

Grief is a normal adjustment to changes in life, including death. Police officers are trained to turn off their emotions at work so they can focus on the task at hand while the situation is evolving. They may not have the time or willingness to revisit their grief until much later, which can have a detrimental impact on their physical and emotional health.

Having worked with police officers over the years, I have seen the effects of continuous loss and grief first-hand. Grief is cumulative and if people don’t address their emotions, they may experience prolonged grief which, if unaddressed, can lead officers to use unhealthy coping mechanisms and make them unable to do their jobs properly.

Prolonged grief can affect the ability to express and manage emotions; it can impede an officer’s capacity to pay attention and make rational decisions. In the line of duty, this can have serious consequences. Difficulties in dealing with emotions can also negatively impact an officer’s relationship with co-workers, family and friends. Affected officers can become more irritated and tense. They can develop anxiety and depression. They can experience post-traumatic stress symptoms every time they are confronted with similar or related events on the job. They may turn to over-medicating, substance misuse and other problematic behaviours just to cope.

Fortunately, these days there is much more openness around the presence, impact and management of grief. In addition to taking time off to adequately process thoughts and emotions, officers experiencing grief can greatly benefit from the support of their peers. Higher-ranking officers who share some of their difficulties and healthy coping mechanisms in dealing with traumatic situations on the job are such great models and can help junior officers normalize the experience of grief and feel less isolated.

Knowing when to step in for a co-worker (e.g., going to a call involving a person similar in age to another officer’s family member) could be helpful. Have routine debriefing sessions, educate staff to watch for signs of grief among co-workers, make support routine and readily available, and schedule regular safeguard psychological assessments. These actions can help identify potential problems before they deteriorate more and give the opportunity to those affected to seek the help they need sooner.

Providing easy access to professional counselling services and other resources is another key step toward helping police officers avoid prolonged grief. Having areas in the department where they can pick up information on mental health services, counselling and peer groups, can help normalize these options. Partnering with a mental health organization to host presentations in the workforce on how to recognize the signs of grief and where to seek help can raise further awareness. Making sure that staff members know about bereavement leave policies and other options for professional and spiritual connections will give them choices to take action. Given the tendency to isolate in grief, it’s important to encourage police officers to engage in social activities again when they feel ready.

There’s no question that the grief experienced among police officers is complex and unique. All deserve support. Equipping them with the right resources and support can make a substantial difference in helping them heal.

The work Calian does to support mental health through health delivery and solutions, uniting healthcare providers, clinical research trials, remote care, clinic management and psychological services demonstrates our commitment to the Calian ESG vision: Collaboration to Advance Resilience Excellence and Sustainability—Calian CARES™

Dr. Christine Courbasson is the Chief Psychologist at Calian for Eastern Canada. She is a registered psychologist with a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and a Post-Doctoral Fellowship from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.