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Research Summaries

Impact of a peer support program on police mental health

Keywords: Mental Disorders, Mental Health Support, Peer Support

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Why was the study done?

Like all public safety personnel (PSP), police officers are exposed to more potentially psychologically traumatic events and face unique organizational stressors. This combination may account for the higher number of mental health disorders seen in police officers than in the general public. As concern for police mental health has grown, programs that proactively support mental health and reduce stigma around mental health disorders have become more common.

Peer-support programs offer officers a chance to share their experiences with other officers who may be in the best position to understand these experiences. The goal of this study was to examine a peer-support program through feedback from officers providing peer support.

What was done in the study?

The study was carried out with members of the York Regional Police peer support team in Ontario. Nine officers were interviewed. The officers each had at least two years of peer support experience and ten years of police experience. The officers selected for the York Regional peer support program must have five years of service, be nominated by a peer, take part in a formal interview with peer team members and a clinical psychologist, and undergo an assessment to ensure suitability. Audio recordings were made of the interviews and later reviewed for themes and subthemes.

What did we find out?

  • Five major themes were identified in the interviews: increased mental health literacy, stigma reduction, effects of police culture, need for internal policy, and benefit of creating a provincial standard.
  • Participants indicated that mental health knowledge has been improved among officers, including knowledge and management of stresses beyond traumatic incidents.
  • Participants felt that stigma associated with mental health was more prevalent in police organizations than in the general public. However, through peer support members were more willing to seek help from a mental health professional.
  • Participants felt that the peer support team’s creation has been effective at decreasing stigma in their organization.
  • Participants felt it was important that peer supporters be credible, which includes members who are trustworthy and can speak from their own similar experiences.
  • Participants indicated that the officers they work with were more affected by organizational stress than traumatic stress. Two examples were promotional stress and workplace bullying.
  • Participants felt a strong internal policy on peer support was essential. Members should be informed about the role of peer support and the organizations commitment to psychological wellness.
  • Participants indicated that while there is no provincial standard, one should be developed so that there are best practices for selecting and training peer-support team members. A standardized training course for peer-support teams in law enforcement was also suggested.

Where do we go from here?

The scope of this study was small. It was limited to feedback from one mid-sized Ontario police organization. However, the key themes found here offer several suggestions for future research and the development of robust peer-support practices in the police and other PSP organizations. A key discussion needs to happen about the standardization of training for peer-support and the creation of national best practices so that these programs can be a resource for all PSP.

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

Original Study

Millard, B. (2020). Utilization and impact of peer-support programs on police officers mental health. Frontiers in Psychology.

Summary prepared by Kossick, E. Reviewed & edited by Barootes. B.  & Millard, B.

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