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Maintain the momentum on public safety officer health research

By Stan Stapleton      

The House Committee on Public Safety and National Security recently released a report calling for the creation of a Canadian Institute for Public Safety Officer Health Research.

Police officers responding to the protests in Toronto during the G20 Summit in June 2010. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

This fall, the House Committee on Public Safety and National Security, tabled its first major report examining the mental health challenges that confront public safety employees in Canada.

Led by a motion from Liberal MP Pam Damoff, the Committee studied the phenomenon of operational stress injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among public safety officers, including first responders and other front line staff. The report presented 16 recommendations that, if implemented, could create healthier and safer work environments for thousands of public safety workers in this country.

The issue of PTSD first came to light for many Parliamentarians in a report by the House of Commons’ Veterans Committee in 2007 which addressed much needed support for veterans and other victims of post-traumatic stress disorder and Operational Stress Injuries (OSI). In 2015, a Senate Sub-committee also studied the issue.

Increasingly, however, there is a recognition that operational stress injuries are not unique to the military. Unfortunately, they are a pervasive reality among many categories of workers, including first responders and others employed to keep Canadians safe.  This growing awareness of operational stress injuries outside of the military culminated in modifications to legislation in at least three provinces that recognize traumatic work experiences as a reason for paid leave under workers’ compensation.

With this in mind, the House Public Safety Committee took on the task of better understanding the frequency and nature of operational stress injuries among the many thousands of employees who keep Canadians safe every day. They heard from a diverse range of experts and organizations, some well-resourced and others not.

Particularly compelling was the witness testimony from the Aboriginal Fire Fighters Association whose representative spoke about the appalling lack of basic fire fighting facilities in many first nations and remote communities. For fire fighters in these regions, being on the job is often a precursor to PTSD because of the absolute scarcity of equipment, which inhibits their ability to effectively fight residential fires.

The Committee also heard from agencies and unions that represent employees from Correctional Service Canada, the RCMP, and several other federal departments.  The fact that employees who work closely with federal offenders are more susceptible to PTSD and occupational stress injuries was underlined by these witnesses.

The experiences of offenders who have been sentenced to federal crimes, and whose rehabilitation is facilitated by Correctional Service staff (including teachers, program, and parole officers) exact at a heavy toll on those responsible for offenders’ transition back to the community.  Not surprisingly, these offenders have often had traumatic childhoods and other difficult life circumstances which have led them to serious criminal behaviour.

In order to do their work effectively, parole officers must understand the offender and the extent of his/her criminal behavior in order to monitor their capacity for rehabilitation. This job often involves learning dark and disturbing details about the offender’s own trauma, as well as the pain and suffering they have inflicted on others.

Resources that would facilitate healing, such as psychological and psychiatric services, are rarely sufficient to support offenders so it is often parole and program officers who bear witness to their stories, learn about their victims, and become connected to their success or failure. For example, the tragic legacy of Canada’s residential schools is sometimes etched in these stories of abuse, multi-generational trauma, and cultural genocide.

Other employees working for the RCMP, Justice, Public Prosecutions and the Human Rights tribunals are also at risk of occupation stress injuries, including PTSD, due to their repeated exposure to traumatic material—even if they aren’t directly interacting with those accused or committed of federal crimes. Transcribing court proceedings and victim statements every day can eat away at one’s own sense of security. Front line staff in smaller RCMP detachments are no less vulnerable. Whether they are dispatching officers, taking emergency calls, or dealing with the public, the job of detachment staff requires a constant vigilance that can erode one’s sense of safety and mental health over time.

The resulting occupational stress injuries for public safety officers can include sustained or intensive periods of insomnia, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, depression, increased alcohol abuse, and alterations in basic assumptions about themselves, people, and society.

Given the powerful testimony from so many, the Committee’s report has called for the creation of the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Officer Health Research.

Coincidentally, the University of Regina houses the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment which, given its mandate, would be a great candidate for this. The proposed Institute would lead the elaboration of a national strategy on operational stress injuries, which would include policies on prevention, screening, education, intervention, and treatment.

On Tuesday, November 22, the Union of Solicitor General Employees is convening an event on the Hill featuring several MPs from the Public Safety Committee. This event will recognize the Committee’s excellent work and celebrate Canada’s public safety champions who are often behind the scenes. We hope it will also serve to keep this crucial conversation going about the role that thousands of Canadians play in keeping Canadians safe each and every day.

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