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Police Chiefs Must Remove the Stigma From Talking About Mental Health

05/12/2015 12:37 EDT | Updated 05/12/2016 05:59 EDT
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I'm not ashamed to admit that when I was a teenager I had a lot of interactions with the police because of my mental illness. I'd have a mental breakdown or a bout of psychosis and my group home would call the police to transport me to the hospital. The back of police cruisers quickly began to feel like a taxi and handcuffs felt like painful bracelets. These were both things I somewhat became accustomed to, and as I look back on them these experiences helped to shape my advocacy.

Unfortunately, my negative experiences with the various police forces throughout Ontario far outweigh my positive experiences. To sum things up I had a lot of police officers treat me like junk. Initially I didn't understand why but over the past 10 years I've learned it was because of the so-called "police culture" but also the lack of sensitivity training police received. I guess you could say I've slowly been able to forgive the police for the less than kind treatment I was on the receiving end of.

No matter what type of mental health committee or council I've sat on I've always tried to find a way to bring police into the fold to learn more about the challenges they face and what they require from the mental health community.

Over the past few years I've become more empathetic to all members of law enforcement as I learn of the challenges some of them are facing with their own mental health. While changes and improvements continuously need to be made to strengthen the relationship between police and the mental health community, I've been reluctant to criticize the police in regards to their dealings with people with mental illness. If anything I've rushed to the defense of police when people around me have been critical of them. I've said, "Come on folks, many police officers are struggling with their own mental health difficulties. Give them a break."

I am genuinely worried about the mental health of police officers across Canada (and around the world for that matter). It absolutely appalls me that there are officers across the country taking their own lives -- some with their service-issued gun. In a post authored by me last year "Police Officers Need Help With Mental Health Issues Too," I said that any change that so badly needs to happen, needs to come from the top. The change needs to come from police administration, chiefs and deputy chiefs of police need to lead by example and order that this change needs to happen immediately.

Police chiefs across the country need to get really creative to ensure another member of their forces do not take their own lives. One way we can help to facilitate this much-needed change is by talking. We need to take the sting out of talking about mental illness. None of us would be ashamed to admit we have a physical illness, so why are we so afraid to talk about our mental illnesses?

Last month, Constable Daryl Archer of the Hamilton Police Service died by suicide and his family wants to talk about how he died to prevent it from happening to another officer. However, Hamilton Police chief Glenn De Caire believes silence is golden and doesn't want to talk about the fact that his officers mental health is deteriorating and one by one they're taking their own lives. In an emailed statement according to The Hamilton Spectator Chief De Caire said, "The sudden loss of life is a tragedy for many and our thoughts and prayers continue to be with Daryl's family. Many of our members have clearly indicated they do not support any further media coverage. We will continue to respect Daryl's memory, his privacy and the members' wishes."

Chief De Caire, you're wrong! Nobody is asking you to publicly release the names of your officers living with mental illness. Keeping quiet is what got us into this mess in the first place and it is why your officers keep taking their own lives. It is because they have to suffer in silence, they're too afraid to speak up and asking for help. Speaking up could help save lives. If your officers, members of the public or the media want to talk about this issue then let them. Let's collaborate and figure out how to save lives rather than hiding in the shadows and pretending this isn't an issue.

It's your turn Chief De Caire, how are you going to save the life of one of your officers?

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