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Organizational Questions to Ask Regarding Mental Wellness

Senior police and emergency executives and leaders may wonder sometimes where to start in the development of peer support work and how to address the issue of helping their staff become aware of and develop resilience to trauma in their workplace.

Over the years of being involved in peer support work, I have identified five key questions that need to be answered in order to address those concerns properly. A bonus question that relates to communications has also been added to the list. But the five key questions are crucial for senior executives and leaders to ask in order to ensure that both they and their organization are prepared to deal with staff who develop PTSD.

The (5) KEY QUESTIONS that every supervisor, manager and member of a police service should be asking their own organization regarding mental wellness:

1. What training programs for resilience development and awareness are in place for all employees, pre-event, pre-accumulation of events in relation to trauma, working relationships and peer support?
Does your training fit your specific job-related needs? Does it address misunderstandings that occur among employees due to their different approach to meeting the competencies? Does it address the importance of understanding personality traits, perceptions versus realities, the breach of contract and weight of authority? Do experienced peer supporters share their experience within the training agenda? Does a psychologist talk about the importance of voluntary mental health checks and how they can get involved? Does your training invite crisis workers in to talk about how they connect with and work with peers? Does your training include defining the roles of leaders and supervisors during and after trauma events? Does it include addressing the issues described in the chapter titled “Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”?

2. What procedures, policies and directives are in place to provide immediate action and support for members involved in trauma events as they occur or for members who are identified at a later time as a result of an accumulation of events?
As a result of the research and studies that have been conducted since the mid- to late 1990s, most psychologists today advise that, if reactions to trauma are dealt with quickly, the likelihood of PTSD setting in is slight. These specialists need to be allowed to do their work. Police services and emergency services organizations that have employee assistance programs (EAPs) in place do not necessarily have trauma therapists working for them who are capable of handling personnel dealing with trauma or PTSD.
Even though there may be policies in place, if there isn’t a means to hold management to account for following the procedure, then the procedures, policies and directives are not, in effect, truth.

3. What procedures, policies and directives are in place in the organization to provide long term care and support for those who suffer from the effects of PTSD, including retired members?
Most police services will recognize that there is still considerable stigma attached to someone admitting that they are suffering from PTSD. This stigma is destructive and why many police officers and emergency services personnel will only admit, or acknowledge, that they do have PTSD after they retire. Yet during retirement is when they will feel most abandoned by the organization. Because they are retired, most organizations take no further responsibility for them, or their well-being, and see them only as a liability should the organization be required to help them.

4. What training is in place for all levels of management and how are they held accountable for the mental health of the employees for which they are responsible?

It is often said that it is not the trauma event that harmed employees the most; after all, they are trained to deal with stressful situations. Rather it is the lack of support afterward that hurts the most. This lack of support is directly linked to how managers manage their people. Managers and how they react to their employees, who are themselves reacting to trauma, are the ones who may cause employees the most damage. Management must become aware of the issues surrounding trauma reactions and PTSD. Management at all levels within an organization should be held accountable for the help they offer—or not—to those suffering from PTSD.

5. What peer support groups are in place within the organization to assist employees and managers to become involved in providing mental health care?
Peer support groups will ensure that organizations address issues such as training, trauma response, long-term care and how the leadership in the organization can implement support programs. These programs are not difficult to put in place. When they are peer-driven, as opposed to management-driven, they work well and are not expensive considering all that they may accomplish in educating the organization about the value of mental health care.

Bonus Question: What short- and long-term communications strategies are in place to normalize the use of mental health care by the members in the organization?
When we talk about issues openly, it becomes harder to hide from them and it establishes open lines of communication should they be needed by members in the organization at a critical time when dealing with trauma events and PTSD.
But actions speak louder than words and communications have to match an existing practice and not a claim that it is practiced. If the organization states that it will support its members, who are dealing with PTSD issues, but the reality is that they are not and members can find example after example of management not supporting them, then nothing the organization says will mean anything.

About the Author: Staff Sergeant (Ret’d) Sylvio (Syd) Gravel, M.O.M., retired from the Ottawa Police Service, with 31 years policing experience, and 28 years as a PTSD survivor, is one of the founding fathers of Robin’s Blue Circle, a post-shooting trauma team of peers, first established in 1988. An author of two books, “56 Seconds” and “How to Survive PTSD and Build Peer Support” Syd is now the Senior Lead of the Peer and Trauma Support Services Team for the Mood Disorders Society of Canada.  To contact Syd