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Research Summaries

“Groupthink” as a barrier to mental health research and service provision in police

Keywords: Help-seeking, Mental Health, Stigma

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Why was the study done?

In recent years there has been a significant effort by researchers and public safety leadership in Canada to understand the psychological impact of stress and trauma on public safety personnel (PSP). The research has led to what researchers believe is increased access to resources and treatment for PSP dealing with mental health concerns. However, research also shows that there still appear to be barriers to help-seeking among PSP, like police officers and communicators.

Understanding police culture may be vital to breaking down the barriers that still exist. It is possible that a form of “Groupthink” has contributed to low usage of available mental health services.  Groupthink is a desire for harmony or conformity in a group which can lead to a belief in the invulnerability of the group, rejections of criticisms from those outside the group, and belief in the morality of group decisions.

In the current study, the researchers examined group processes that may encourage the stigmatization of mental disorders and the possibility that voicing support for help-seeking may counter norms in PSP culture.

What was done in the study?

Nine focus groups (including 1 interview) were conducted consisting of 3-6 participants. All focus groups were recorded, and transcripts of those sessions were analyzed for the study. There were two types of participants, public safety communicators and police officers. All participants were from one Ontario municipal police force, and all group interviews were done onsite during work hours. A total of 33 staff participated (8 civilians, 25 officers).

What did we find out?

  • Three characteristics of Groupthink emerged from the focus group discussions. This result supports the idea that Groupthink may be at work among police staff.
  • It was clear from the separate groups of civilian and police officers that they had each created their own “in-group.”
  • Many participants reported that because of the nature of their work (potential trauma, stress, and shift work), many of their relationships were with people who were also a part of the police service.
  • Participants viewed members in the professional standards unit or management as a separate or “out-group.”
  • Participants indicated they were concerned about how fellow group members would view them if they had a mental health need. They also expressed a fear that they would not have access to advancement or promotion if they had compromised mental health.
  • In the groups, those with greater seniority typically spoke first and more frequently. They also tended to have their comments supported.
  • Participants with 5+ years of experience provided the majority of the comments in the focus groups.

Where do we go from here?

The nature of paramilitary organizations like the police is distinct.  If further research supports the idea of Groupthink existing in police organizations, it will have to be considered when designing mental health infrastructure and services. To facilitate the development of programs that police service members will use, it will be necessary for those in positions of authority to refrain from leading with their opinions and instead encourage free debate so that members of the group do not feel the need to conform to a superior’s position. It is essential for those that offer treatment to understand the culture of their patients so that barriers to help-seeking can be broken down.

The original wording of the study was changed and condensed for the current research summary.


Original Study

Ricciardelli, R., Czarnuch, S. M., Kozmochka, N. & Martin, K. (2021). “I’m not sick!… Are you?” Groupthink in police services as a barrier to collecting mental health data. International Journal of Police Science & Management.

Summary prepared by Kossick, E. Edited & reviewed by Barootes, B & Ricciardelli, R.

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