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Research Summaries

It’s all window dressing

Keywords: Mental Disorders, Stigma

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Why was the study done?

Like the work of all public safety personnel (PSP), police work is stressful. This stress can lead to an increased risk of mental disorders. Police organizational culture often promotes attitudes of stoicism and toughness. Such attitudes can lead to an increased perception of stigma toward those living with mental disorders. People with mental health disorders often remain stigmatized in society. There is some evidence to suggest this stigma remains in police organizations, but research in a Canadian context is limited

The goals of the current study were:

  • to determine what officers believe are barriers to stigma reduction in the workplace;
  • to determine if gender, rank, and years of service impact officers’ perceptions of stigma and their comfort level reporting mental disorders to their employer .

What was done in the study?

Information was gathered in two ways: First, 116 police officers from across Canada were interviewed using in-depth, open-ended questions. Second, themes from these interviews were used to create an on-line survey that 727 officers completed.

What did we find out?

  • In survey responses, 48% of participants agreed that stigma towards officers with mental health concerns has improved. However, this perception varied depending on rank, gender, number of years serving, and lived experience with a mental disorder. Interviews revealed that this optimism must be taken with caution as most officers continue to report moderate to high levels of stigma in their police service.
  • In interviews, traditional masculinity was often identified as the largest cultural barrier to the reduction of stigma. This included feeling pressures to be tough, stoic, and self-reliant.
  • Men in interviews were most likely to self-stigmatize, internalizing the idea that having a mental illness reflected weakness.
  • In survey findings, senior management’s belief that stigma had improved was 30% higher than constables.
  • Interviewees believed that the attitudes and behaviours of senior management, and some middle management, were creating organizational barriers to stigma reduction.
  • The majority of interviewees felt that resources, programs, and training to combat stigma and encourage help-seeking have not been successful.
  • Of those surveyed, 24% said they would report mental health issues without fear of career or social repercussions. That number rises to 44% when looking only at senior management.
  • Officers who reported mental disorder to their employer described behaviour by management that further stigmatized them, adding additional trauma which significantly impacted their recovery. These officers often resigned early or were on lengthy sick leaves.
  • Women reported higher belief in the existence of stigma, but men reported higher rates of avoidance and self-stigmatization.
  • In both interviews and survey results, those with lived experience reported the highest belief in persistent stigma and risk in relation to reporting mental disorder to their service.

Where do we go from here?

While some progress has been made, results suggest that progress has been incremental and uneven. This study’s findings reveal that significant efforts should be made to understand how to shift an organizational culture that still supports stigma and fear around mental health disorders. Officers need resources that are confidential and police-specific combined with policies and procedures that normalize mental health disorder as a job hazard, not a personal failure. Effective education to increase awareness and buy-in (beginning with leadership); social support from peers and leaders; and integrative return-to-work policies are further suggestions made by officers in the study.

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


Original Study

Bikos, L.J. (2020) “It’s all window dressing:” Canadian police officers’ perceptions of mental health stigma in their workplace. Policing: An International Journal, 44(1), 63-76.

Summary prepared by E. Kossick Reviewed & edited by B. Barootes and Bikos, L.J.

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