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Understanding Mental Health in Law Enforcement

Understanding Mental Health in Law Enforcement

J Shymko


Introduction…

When learning to ride a bike children use training wheels as a reasonable stepping stone to understand how they can reach their goals- that being to get to where they want to go on the bike without causing harm to themselves or others. Kids are not given a bike and expected to ride in the Toure de France, because that would simply be ridiculous and put themselves and others in harm’s way- creating a dysfunctional race for all involved. This likely appears as obvious, but unfortunately, it metaphorically is along the lines of how police officers are thrown into crisis situations without the mental preparation, the training wheels, of handling these situations safely. Those in law enforcement lack the psychological preparation necessary to take on the intense events their duties entail in a manner that successfully achieves not only physical safety but mental and emotional safety as well. This lack of preparation has led to an abundance of cracks in the policing system. From limited mental health training, negative attitudes and perceptions surrounding mental health, social and workplace stigma in receiving help, and without mechanisms to balance the mental weight of the taxing work environment of law enforcement, an unstable and unsafe career is created for many officers. As such, insufficient psychological training fosters a lack of interpersonal and intrapersonal skills required for officers when they are facing unfamiliar situations. Particularly, circumstances that are emotionally charged or involve individuals who are struggling with their mental health. This lack of interpersonal skill becomes deeply rooted in police culture and may materialize in forms of reactive, impulsive, and dangerous behaviour. As a result of this institutional weakness, both police officers and the public, many of whom are vulnerable individuals, are put at risk. Where at minimum is the risk of poor treatment, and at worst is the potential for inappropriate use of force and deadly abuse of power.

            Poor mental health in the community has caught the public’s eye as a growing portion of the population has begun to speak out. This is no easy task, but society is at its wits’ end and begs for the necessary attention needed to address the epidemic of mental health issues, advocating for better access to resources. Unfortunately, the problem of poor mental health has not gained equal traction in the world of policing. The well-being of police officers continues to go unrecognized or dismissed, and the issues are only exacerbated by the lack of facilitation of education and support systems for officers to appropriately prepare themselves for their strenuous [LT1] duties. In addressing how to prepare officers to confront challenging situations in a manner that minimizes risk, it is crucial to consider the surrounding debates of changing attitudes versus changing behaviours, workplace stigma, and the impacts of policing on officers and the public. This issue requires an in-depth education on harm mitigation in order to properly equip officers with the skills required to diffuse mental health crises commonly faced in the line of duty. Recommendations to achieve this include critical incident debriefs, reducing barriers to seeking mental health help, peer support, and the integration and sharing of resources and information. Through mechanisms such as these, there is hope that the mistreatment of an already vulnerable population, those who suffer with their mental health, will be reduced, and will receive the proper responsive care from authorities when in crisis.


‘You before me’ mentality…

            When boarding an airplane and preparing for take-off, it is common to hear the instruction that ‘in the unlikely event of a malfunction to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others’. This remains true in the metaphorical sense of providing mental health aid to others. It was found that “on average, law enforcement officers experience 188 critical incidents in the course of their career”.[1][LT2]  Although training in the mental health field has increased, there continues to be a number of issues that remain,[2] primarily that of poor mental health literacy within the police force inhibits their ability to not only aid others in crisis, but also the ability to recognize their own challenges with mental health.[3] This has been acknowledged by scholars, who have stated that there is “not enough time or resources have been allocated to officers learning about mental health within themselves”,[4] contributing to the greater mental decline of the population. As such, police officers must put on their own oxygen mask, that being educating themselves in personal and societal mental health issues, prior to being capable of adequately addressing the needs of others, as “if police cannot take care of themselves, they cannot take care of the community”.[5]


Poor mental health literacy…

            Part of the harm caused by officers arriving at a scene where someone is suffering from a mental health crisis may be attributed to police officer’s overestimating their ability to recognize certain mental conditions. Recognition of mental health conditions, one’s mental health literacy, is important as “it requires police officers to communicate and behave in an adjusted manner with affected individuals”.[6] Researchers conducted a study on the mental health literacy of police officers by testing their recognition of common symptoms of the five disorders most frequently exhibited on officer calls, these being schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and borderline personality disorder. For each mental health disorder there was the following successful recognition of all symptoms: 62% for schizophrenia, 17% for manic episodes, 44% for depressive episodes, 14.6% for PTSD, and a jarring 0% for borderline personality disorder.[7] This study highlights the need for police training to prepare for calls that involve individuals with mental health disorders and for officers to have the requisite knowledge to identify the issue they are confronting.

A disregard for mental health within police culture…

            An unfortunate yet important statistic to acknowledge is the increasing suicide rates amongst those in law enforcement. A study conducted in the United States of America found that since 2016 the number of officer suicides surpassed those killed in the line of duties.[8] Additionally, police officers are 2% more likely to commit suicide than the general population.[9] This information may seem unsettlingly as one may reasonably think that “… the statistic for law enforcement suicide and the statistics for suicide in the general population should not be anywhere close to each other, as law enforcement officers are screened in the beginning of their careers to ensure they are fit for duty. On the other hand, the high rate of completed suicide by officers could be attributed to personality traits which led them to going into the force in the first place”.[10] While shocking, this is indicative of recurring themes pertaining to the poor mental health of officers. In a nutshell, as the attitudes and personality of officers perpetuate an unhealthy workplace environment where recognizing one’s struggles is perceived as a sign of weakness, leading to a consistent disregard for one’s wellbeing as “in fear of having one’s career side-lined and being the subject of office gossip… keep[ing] many police personnel from seeking the help that they need and to which they are entitled”.[11][LT3]   Sadly, within police departments is a long history that exists as a “police subculture that encourages silence and denial of serious mental health issues” which results in both reactive policy making, and likely reactive officers as well, instead of shifting the workplace perspective to proactively dealing with problems that arise.[12] 

 

The “police personality”…

            Commonly, there is a belief that those within law enforcement share many similar characteristics. This stereotype often includes traits such as being male, politically oriented towards conservatism, having difficulty maintaining relationships, and generally sharing a similar demeanor or “police personality”.[13] To understand the concept of ‘police personality’ one must first have a general understanding of what ‘personality’ truly entails. Personality typically “refers to the combination of characteristics, thoughts, feelings, and behaviours forming an individual’s distinct character”.[14] Personality is dynamic, changing through time and experiences. It is considered to be a mixture of “biological, physiological, and sociological” factors that predisposes an individual’s particular thinking and behaviour, all depending on the context.[15] While there have been inconsistencies in the findings of previous studies regarding whether individuals in law enforcement have unique personality characteristics, the study discussed here found that after considering the Big Five model of personality, “results tend to support the notion that police officers have a distinct set of personality characteristics that distinguish them form the general population”.[16] The Big Five model captures five domains of personality. First, extraversion, which in this study was measured by characteristics such as the desire to pursue excitement and social scenes, talkativeness, and assertiveness.[17] Neuroticism, which is a trait defined by anxiety, insecurity, depression, anger, and emotional liability. The characteristic of agreeableness was measured by considering traits such as being “attitude with the motivational goals of conformity”,[18] being modest, compliant, as well as cooperative.[19] Conscientiousness, which “includes characteristics such as responsibility, carefulness, thoroughness, scrupulousness, and having self control”.[20] Finally, the quality of ‘openness to experience’ was measured in reference to “intelligence, imaginativeness, sensitiveness, and open-mindedness”.[21] 

            The conclusion of this study pointed to three main measures on the Big Five personality scale to be particularly significant. There was a negative correlation between neuroticism and police personality, where results indicated that a single unit increase in neuroticism correlated to a 12% decrease in the likelihood one would work in law enforcement.[22] Agreeableness was also found to have a negative correlation with police personality, where it was found that that a single unit increase in agreeableness decreased the odds an individual was employed in law enforcement by 9% .[23] Finally, openness to experience was proven to decrease by 7% with each unit increase.[24] Therefore, the findings of this study can be summarized to conclude that the more neurotic, agreeable, and open to experience one is, the less likely they are to be in law enforcement. Another important consideration is the findings of the past, as prior literature has found that “stress, depression, anger, and anxiety” were commonly associated with the police personality. In combination with current research, it is reasonable to conclude that the equation of demeanours, competition, stressful environments, and unsupportive peers adds up to be an unproductive and potentially dangerous environment.

            While it has been found that there are notably significant factors in a ‘police personality’ that are attributable to the demographic, when and why these differences arise is undetermined. There are four discussed views on the original of the police personality, that is guided by the assumption that individuals who work in the law enforcement field have personalities that somehow differ from that of non-officers.[25] First, the ‘predisposition model’ argues that the individual entering law enforcement possessed the ‘police personality’ characteristics prior to recruitment.[26] The ‘selection model’ takes the perspective that police applicants and candidates have the same common personality traits as the general population, but due to screening procedures only certain personality types are admitted into the academy and police force.[27] Next, the ‘socialization model’ suggests that “police personality is a function of the police subculture and learned in the academy and on the job”,[28] which reinforces the idea that police culture exacerbates potentially negative or dangerous personality traits. Finally, the ‘null model’ proposes the idea that police personality does not exist, and rather those in law enforcement have the similar, or comparable attributes to those of the general larger population.[29] 

            In all, “law enforcement officers have been described as having a distinct set of personality characteristics that distinguish them from the general population”.[30] Taking this information and applying to the broader context of society, law enforcement, and those who struggle with mental illness, the need for hiring a more diverse demographic of police candidates would be of benefit to better serve a complex community.

            It should be noted that the concept of a police personality is commonly met with skepticism. Michael Koppang, previously an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as well as the Canadian military, is of the belief that the idea of a police personality should be “robustly challenged”.[31] It is Koppang’s perspective that there are a variety of personalities within law enforcement, representative of personality diversity as in the general population. This belief shows support for the “null model” theory, which opposes the idea that certain personalities are drawn to work in law enforcement. Rather, Koppang believes that the personality differences that exist in law enforcement are masked when officers develop response patterns through time, training, and routine when on the job. Putting on a different hat gives an outfit a different look, but the person remains the same. If everyone in the faculty of law were to wear the same hat, it does not make sense to assume other characteristics are the same. Likewise, fulfilling different roles and responsibilities requires different characteristics to be brought out based on the circumstances.  Here is where the public’s misconception is formed and officers may be perceived to display a stereotypical, uniform personality. Koppang acknowledges that there is often a dominant personality that exists within law enforcement, but with the correct leadership a team can function in a healthy work environment while enjoying various personalities and perspectives as often the most subdued or understated individuals have the most valuable information to share.[32]


The impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)…

It is believed that fear responses of officers may originate from a history of untreated PTSD in combination with a lack of coping skills.[33] Coupled with limited mental health symptom recognition within both themselves there are greater consequences.[34] Common PTSD symptoms include “intrusive thoughts, avoiding reminders, negative emotions, arousal resulting in reactive behaviour, and hypervigilance”.[35] Of great concern is how these symptoms can often translate into behaviour that initiates a fear response by officers when placed in emotionally stimulating situations. As a result, there is a risk of harm towards the communities as a “connection between PTSD and aggressive tendencies has been maintained throughout multiple studies… and increases in PTSD symptomology were associated with increase in aggressive responding”. [36]

            A study collected in an urban environment found “perpetrating interpersonal violence was associated with a history [of] childhood and adult trauma history, and with PTSD symptoms and diagnosis. An association between violent behaviour and PTSD diagnosis was maintained after controlling for other pertinent variables such as demographics and presence of depression”.[37] This is highly applicable to police officers as they typically spend an abundance of time in the communities they serve and are exposed to similar types of violence as those in urban communities. These violent tendencies are only intensified when one abuses their role of authority and power between law enforcement and the community, providing an opportunity for police officers to express their aggression while working within vulnerable communities.[38] 


Barriers officers face to receiving help…

            Taking a look at the information provided so far, it is apparent that studies have documented the unwillingness of officers to seek professional help.[39] This may be a result of specific personality traits that either draw individuals to law enforcement or develop while on the job, stigma in law enforcement agencies that deter officers from seeking out professional help,[40] or an overall inability to recognize symptoms of mental illness within themselves.[41] Thus, “… unwillingness to establish a baseline of mental health in currently operating officers based on the fear of finding some of them unfit to serve, and the polarization between police and community,”[42] leading to a volatile concoction of an unwillingness to seek help. This is evident in a study on the willingness of officers to seek help for depression, diagnosed or undiagnosed. Here, it was found that “34% of the officers stated that they had experienced depression since they began working in law enforcement… however, only 56% of officers said they would seek professional help if they experienced an episode of depression”.[43] This statistic may be considered a representation of the embodiment of the negative environment police officers are enveloped in; group think surrounding mental health, unrecognized symptoms of PTSD and reinforced attitudes, become internalized as a personalized stigma that hinders officers from receiving the necessary help they need as individuals and effective police officers.


Further perpetuating harm in “Cop City”…

            The public is not blind to the bouts of violence and harm perpetuated by law enforcement. The public has been made increasingly aware of how insufficient training within police forces are, all too often due to the abuse of power vulnerable communities endure because of it. The development of “Cop City” is a suitable example of the public’s distrust in further development of standard training centers for police.

            The city of Atlanta, Georgia is in the works of constructing a modern police and fire training complex which has been the topic of heated controversy. This new facility is to include a new shooting range, burning building, and mock city for “real world training”.[44] The movement “Stop Cop City” has gained momentum as followers fear that with the little public input allowed it will “militarize police forces and contribute to further instances of police brutality”.[45] Additionally, concerns are voiced by environmentalists as the development is set to take place in a piece of forested land. Alarmingly, the consensus of protestors is that of an overriding feeling of fear.

            What once again, unsurprisingly, goes unmentioned in the development of this new facility is the inclusion of modern training to address proper care of populations who are disproportionately involved with law enforcement, such as people of colour, those in poverty, and those who struggle with their mental health. Subsequently, it is no wonder commentators and protestors are of the belief that Cop City is “a war base where police will learn military like maneuvers to kill Black people and control our bodies and movements”.[46] 

            As history continues to repeat itself, the pervasive distrust of authorities is perpetuated. Too frequently, when a vulnerable population asks for discussion with their local authorities, the request is met with dismissiveness, lackluster consultation, and armed violence. This repeated and consistent inconsideration to the concerns of these populations by those who are to keep them safe has contributed to the protests to Cop City becoming extreme, involving gun fire, Molotov cocktails, destruction of property, and have even resulted in death.[47]


Acknowledging the need for change…

            The Community Safety Knowledge Alliance (CSKA) conducted a review of the Manitoba Police Service Act 2009. Despite the Police Service Act being considered to have “modernized police governance and oversight through greater accountability and transparency to policing in Manitoba”,[48] the findings of this study serve as a concrete example of the dire need for a change in the way mental health is addressed in law enforcement. Here, it was acknowledged that “officer wellness is a significant issue confronting all Canadian police services”,[49] and Winnipeg, that includes you too.

Conor et al. (2019) reported that 5% of the permanent employees were on authorized leave of 12 weeks or longer and most of them (62%) were for medical reasons. One reason for these officers being on leave are psychological injuries. Carleton and colleagues (2018a) found that over one-third (36.7%) of municipal or provincial police officers and one-half of RCMP officers (50.2%) report having one or more symptoms of mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, alcohol abuse, or PTSD. Extrapolating those proportions to the entire nation, the effectiveness of one third to one half of Canadian officers is somewhat diminished due to some form of mental disorder. Some of officers suffering from psychological injuries have significant troubles and Carleton and colleagues (2018b) found that about 10 per cent of their sample of public safety personnel had thought about suicide in the prior year and about 4 per cent of the sample had developed a plan to kill themselves; 18 of their respondents had attempted suicide. The suicide of two Ontario officers in October 2019 drew national attention to developing better responses to address the unmet needs of the police workforce. Police organizations with an unhealthy workplace culture, including agencies with high rates of bullying and harassment might make it difficult for these officers to seek help (Sawa, Ivany, & Kelley, 2019). A growing number of officers are on medical leaves for psychological injuries, and Conor, Robson, and Marcellus (2019, p. 14) report there were over 5,000 permanent employees who were on leave for 12 weeks or more (for all causes), and about two-thirds of them were sworn officers. Given the human and financial costs of these psychological injuries, there will be much attention paid to this issue in the near future, and especially in organizations that have high rates of self-reported operational stress injuries, such as the RCMP. [50]

 

            These statistics form a fulsome look at the root causes of poor mental health amongst law enforcement. By reviewing current legislation such as the Manitoba Police Service Act and peeking behind the closed door of the world of law enforcement to see a stressful workplace, an overall disregard for officer wellness due to personality, ignorance surrounding mental health, and barriers to receiving help, it is clear that change is long overdue.



[1] “Policing through the pain: How trauma impacts police officers”, (October 2019), online: International Public Safety Association <https://www.joinipsa.org/resources/Publications/Policing%20through%20the%20Pain%20-%20How%20Trauma%20Impacts%20Police%20Officers%20-%20International%20Public%20Safety%20Association%20-%20October%202019.pdf> at 1 [Policing through the pain].

[2] Krameddine, Yasmeen I & Peter H Silverstone. “How to improve interactions between police and the mentally ill”, (9 December 2014), online: Frontiers <https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2014.00186/full> at 1.

[3] Wittmann, Linus et al. “Police officers’ ability in recognizing relevant mental health conditions”, (17 September 2021), online: Frontiers in psychology <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8484651/> at 2.

[4] Policing through the pain, supra note 1 at 17.

[5] Mental Health Commission of Canada, ed. “Balancing individual safety, community safety, and quality of life: How to improve interactions between police/security and people with mental illness~”, (17 June 2019), online: Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health <https://campusmentalhealth.ca/resource/balancing-individual-safety-community-safety-and-quality-of-life/> at 19.

[6] Ibid at 1.

[7] Ibid at 3.

[8] Policing through the pain, supra note 1 at 6.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. 

[11] Supra note 4 at 19.

[12] Policing through the pain, supra note 1 at 20.

[13] TenEyck, Michael  F. “The ‘Police personality’: Is it real? – Michael F. Teneyck, 2023”, (28 July 2023), online: Sage Journals <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/10986111231193032> at 1.

[14] Ibid at 2.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid at 3.

[17] Ibid at 4.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid. 

[22] Ibid at 12.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid at 3.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid at 6.

[31] Interview of Michael Koppang (October 27, 2023) on mental health in law enforcement and Manitoba Justice.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Policing through the pain, supra note 1 at 4.

[34] Wittmann, Linus et al. “Police officers’ ability in recognizing relevant mental health conditions”, (17 September 2021), online: Frontiers in psychology <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8484651/> at 1.

[35] Policing through the pain, supra note 1 at 12.

[36] Ibid at 14.

[37] Ibid at 13.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid at 15.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid at 4. 

[43] Ibid at 15.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Maxouris, Christina. “Clashes over Atlanta’s ‘cop city’ led to a protester’s killing and dozens of arrests. here’s how we got here -- and what comes next”, (8 March 2023), online: CNN <https://edition.cnn.com/2023/03/08/us/cop-city-explainer/index.html#:~:text=The%20facility%20%E2%80%93%20dubbed%20%E2%80%9CCop%20City%E2%80%9D%20by%20its,and%20contribute%20to%20further%20instances%20of%20police%20brutality.>.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Community Safety Knowledge Alliance. “Independent Review of the Manitoba Police Services Act, 2009”, (September 2020), online: Government of Manitoba <https://www.manitoba.ca/asset_library/en/proactive/2020_2021/Independent-Review-Manitoba-Police-Services-Act-Sept2020.pdf> at 1.

[49] Ibid at 148.

[50] Ibid. 

 [LT1]Track changes turned on here. Only minor grammatical and punctuation changes made prior.

 [LT2]This should not be the first citation. Further citations are needed in the introductory paragraph.

 [LT3]This supra note refers to another supra note.

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