Why was the study done?
Like all PSP, police officers are exposed to more potentially traumatic events on the job than the general population. They also work in an environment with a higher level of occupational stress. These factors can lead to an increase in mental health issues.
Police culture also promotes an image of strength, courage, bravery, and mental toughness. This culture might lead to stigma and discomfort for members seeking mental health support.
The goals of the current study are:
- To explore factors that help and hinder Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers decisions to access psychological services;
- identify barriers to help-seeking;
- share recommendations or wish list changes that would make help-seeking easier from the officer perspective.
What was done in the study?
RCMP officers from the British Columbia lower mainland area were recruited through the RCMP’s internal email. Twenty officers (12 men, 8 women) who had accessed or considered accessing psychological support were interviewed using the Enhanced Critical Incident Technique (ECIT). All officers interviewed were willing to talk freely about why they had decided to access or decided not to access services. Interviews were recorded and augmented with field notes to look for incidents that helped or hindered help-seeking. The interviews were also examined for wish list items (anything an officer wished had been available that could have helped with seeking care).
What did we find out?
- Based on the interviews, 676 incidents were extracted; 264 were classified as helpful, 258 as hindering and 154 wish list items were provided. The incidents were sorted into 32 categories (14 helpful, 13 hindering, and 5 wish list).
- There were many places where helpful and hindering categories overlapped. For example, a well-run critical incident debriefing could be helpful, while poorly run debriefings were hindering.
- The top three categories of helpful incidents were:
- Influence from a third party to seek help. If the person suggesting the officer seek help was trusted and respected, they were more likely to seek help.
- Ability to talk about life, self-awareness, desire to change. Officers who had more mental health knowledge or were more aware they had issues were more likely to seek help.
- Psychologist. An officer with a positive experience with a psychologist would be more willing to seek help from a psychologist again.
- The top three categories of hindering incidents were:
- RCMP culture. The police culture of “suck it up” or the requirement to be strong, combined with concern about being denied a promotion, hindered the officers from seeking help.
- Lack of understanding about the mental health toll of police work. Officers didn’t understand how the trauma they experienced on the job might affect their mental health.
- Unsupportive supervisors/co-workers. Officers experienced incidents where they felt their supervisors and co-workers did not support their mental health, so they chose not to seek help since they might look “weak.”
- There were five wish list recommendations: Changes in organizational procedures, promoting psycho/social self –care and implementing critical incident stress management, information on psychological services and entitlements, effective supervision, and education on mental health and the psychological response to police work.
Where do we go from here?
The detailed information from this small group of RCMP officers gives us a window to help-seeking behaviours and the incidents that can promote help-seeking vs. experiences that hinder help-seeking. While it is hard to generalize from such a small sample, previous research supports many of the study’s findings. The wish list items from the officers provide a starting point for ways to improve help-seeking behaviour. Organizations must provide mental health education opportunities, support, and open discussions about mental health, which still respect the officer’s privacy and don’t impact their career future. It is also crucial for mental health professionals who work with police to be educated on police culture and job responsibilities.
The original wording of the study was changed and condensed for the current research summary.
Burns, C. M. & Buchanan, M.J (2020). Factors that influence the decisions to seek help in a police population. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17, 6891. https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/18/6891
Summary Prepared by Kossick. E. Reviewed by Burns, C.M.