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Tearing Down the Wall: Preventing Suicide among First Responders

“Have you ever thought about taking your own life?” It’s a shocking question, but if you know someone in crisis, asking might just save their life.

The Canadian Police Knowledge Network, in collaboration with York Regional Police and the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), is offering a new training course to raise awareness about suicide and mental health among police and first responders. Suicide Awareness and Prevention is designed to help members of the first responder community recognize suicide risk and understand how to support mental health and well-being in the workplace. Development of this course was funded, in part, by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.

“Overcoming the stigma of a mental illness or problem is the greatest barrier to officers getting the help they need,” says Sgt. Beth Milliard of York Regional Police’s Peer Support Unit and subject matter expert for the course. “In a culture that can view itself as bulletproof, asking for help, or even acknowledging that you need it, is often viewed as a sign of weakness. In fact, it’s the bravest thing a person can do.”


“In a culture that can view itself as bulletproof, asking for help, or even acknowledging that you need it, is often viewed as a sign of weakness. In fact, it’s the bravest thing a person can do.”

- Sgt. Beth Milliard, York Regional Police Peer Support Unit

 

The reality is this: the suicide rate among police officers is two to three times higher than the general population. Whether it’s the result of a single traumatic incident or the effect of stress accumulated over the course of a career, police and other first responders are more susceptible to mental health problems. If left untreated, these problems can lead to harmful behaviors or suicide.

The MHCC is leading several initiatives to raise awareness and action on mental health issues in the policing community. It knows this course will create an opportunity for open and honest dialogues on mental well-being and raise awareness about suicide among first responders.

“First responders, by their very nature, are fixers who are trained, ready, and willing to help others,” says Ed Mantler, MHCC Vice President of Programs and Priorities. “But it can be a much different story when it comes to their personal well-being. Reducing stigma, increasing resilience, and educating the people around them, such as supervisors, colleagues, family, and friends, are vital tools in preventing harm.”

Assessing someone’s risk of suicide is not always easy, but there may be warning signs from those experiencing suicidal thoughts. For example, significant changes in disposition (e.g. sad, angry, or numb and emotionless), a withdrawal from social situations, increased consumption of alcohol or drugs, or changes in sleep or appetite are just a few indicators of someone in crisis. As difficult as it may be to broach the subject, approaching a person and asking if they are contemplating suicide can often be a source of relief to someone who has been suffering in silence. It can be the first — and crucial — step to turning the tide and helping that person get the help they need.

Ultimately, everyone has a role to play in mental health. Taking regular stock of your own psychological well-being can help diffuse stress from building up over time. Recognizing the signs of crisis and intervening when you suspect a colleague might be in trouble, or reaching out to professionals to get that person help, is a key line of defence. Organizations must ensure employees are aware that mental health resources are available to them and encourage their use.

“We need to get to a place where mental health issues are viewed and treated the same as any other physical injury. We assess it. We treat it,” says Sgt. Milliard. “The stigma associated with mental health is a wall -- we need to tear it down.”

The Suicide Awareness and Prevention online training course is offered at no cost to all Canadian first responders, including police, fire, paramedics, and corrections personnel, until June 30, 2016. A French language version, sponsored by MHCC, will be released during the summer of 2016.

To learn more or to register, please visit www.cpkn.ca/course_suicide_awareness_prevention.