Why was the study done?
Exposures to potentially psychologically traumatic events (PPTEs) experienced by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) members during their service can help to explain the prevalence of mental health challenges among officers, but exposures before they started serving may also play a role. Long-standing notions have even suggested that mental health disorders among serving public safety personnel (PSP) were the result of pre-existing mental health injuries, which selection processes could actively seek to screen out. Yet very little is known about the relationship between PPTE exposures and the mental health of new recruits.
The current research was designed to understand the PPTE experiences of RCMP cadets prior beginning the RCMP Cadet Training Program (CTP). The current research provides: 1) a first estimate of lifetime PPTE exposures prior to the CTP; 2) the first information about the PPTEs identified as the worst or most distressing by cadets; 3) information about differences in PPTE exposures across sociodemographic groups; and 4) clarity about the relationships between PPTE exposures and mental health disorders.
What was done in the study?
The current research draws on data from a larger, 10-year RCMP Study designed to assess the impact of skills taught to help protect members from Posttraumatic Stress Injuries (PTSI). A research summary of the previously published Study Protocol can be read here.
There were 772 cadets beginning the CTP who completed a survey assessing self-reported PPTE exposure as measured by the Life Events Checklist for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition – Extended. The checklist assessed lifetime exposure to 17 different types of PPTEs. These data were compared to previously collected data from the general population, and a diverse sample of serving Canadian PSP, including serving RCMP.
What did we find out?
The participating cadets reported more frequent exposures to PPTEs and exposures to more types of PPTEs than the general population, but significantly fewer exposures than serving RCMP and other Canadian PSP. Differences in exposure frequencies were seen across sociodemographic categories including sex and previous PSP or military experience. Serious transport accident, physical assault, and sudden accidental death were the PPTEs most identified as the ‘worst’ event experienced before beginning the CTP, and all were associated with screening positive for one or more mental health disorders.
The results suggest that PPTEs are associated with mental health challenges, and that cadets may be particularly resilient, based on how few cadets screened positive for mental health disorders despite higher PPTE exposures than the general population. Considering the relatively frequent PPTE exposures among cadets, along with recent evidence (see Carleton et al, 2023) that newly recruited cadets have mental health better than the general population, prior PPTE exposures do not appear to explain the high rates of PTSI among serving RCMP, and by extension serving PSP. The relatively frequent and diverse PPTE exposure histories of cadets starting the CTP suggest cadets may have been motivated by these experiences to select a career in policing and help others.
Where do we go from here?
The current results provide the first information about PPTE exposure histories of cadets compared to the general population, serving RCMP, and other Canadian PSP. Results indicate that, prior to starting the CTP, cadets have experienced many more PPTEs than the general population, but far fewer than serving PSP or RCMP, adding to the evidence that mental health challenges among serving PSP populations are the result of service experiences rather than pre-existing mental health challenges or PPTE exposures.
The current research participants were predominantly male (72.0%), so further research is needed to understand how specific PPTE exposures might affect male and female cadets differently. The additional research could help inform tailored support strategies, policies, and further research.
Based on the current research, studying the PPTE exposure histories of cadets has the potential to: assist in recruitment and retention of RCMP members by providing insights into why individuals choose policing careers; identify risk factors for future mental health challenges; and inform the training and resources needed to protect mental health throughout service.
The results help to continue advancing Canada’s first-ever National Action Plan on Post-Traumatic Stress Injuries, including additional investment to support the health and well-being of first responders and other public safety personnel.
The RCMP Study is supported by the RCMP, the Government of Canada, and the Ministry of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. L. M. Lix is supported by a Tier I Canada Research Chair in Methods for Electronic Health Data Quality. T. O. Afifi is supported by a Tier I Canada Research Chair in Childhood Adversity and Resilience. Asmundson is supported by a University of Regina President’s Research Chair. The development, analyses, and distribution of the current article was supported by a generous grant from the Medavie Foundation.
*The original wording of the study was changed and condensed for the current research summary.
Andrews, K. L., Jamshidi, L., Nisbet, J., Brunet, A., Afifi, T. O., Asmundson, G. J. G., Fletcher, A. J., Maquire, K. Q., Teckchandani, T. A., Lix, L., Sauer-Zavala, S., Sareen, J., Keane, T. M., Carleton, R. N. Potentially Psychologically Traumatic Event Exposure Histories of new Royal Canadian Mounted Police Cadets. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. 2023. doi/10.1177/07067437221149467
Prepared by: K. Vincent