National survey results underscore mental health concerns for public safety personnel

By Krista Baliko Posted: August 28, 2017 9:00 a.m.

Dr. Nick Carleton, University of Regina psychology professor and lead investigator on a recently released national study focused on the mental health of public safety personnel.
Dr. Nick Carleton, University of Regina psychology professor and lead investigator on a recently released national study focused on the mental health of public safety personnel. Photo: U of R Photography

According to a new report, substantial proportions of Canada’s public safety personnel self-report symptoms consistent with one or more mental disorders, proportions that appear much higher than have been found in previous research with the general public.

The national study, entitled, “Mental Disorder Symptoms Among Public Safety Personnel in Canada,” focused on the mental health of public safety personnel and was released by a team of researchers with the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment, led by University of Regina psychology professor, Dr. Nick Carleton.

Carleton says the team sent out a survey designed to clarify the scope and impact of mental health symptoms reported by diverse Canadian public safety personnel, including correctional workers, call centre operators, dispatchers, firefighters, paramedics, and police.

“Our survey is among the most thorough of its kind. It was offered in both French and English, was sent to nearly 9000 people, and was completed by nearly 6,000 respondents from coast to coast,” says Carleton. “A significant number of participants reported symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.”  

Other results indicate women may be more likely than men to report clinically significant symptoms, those living in Ontario or Quebec may be less likely to report symptoms than those living in Western Canada, and municipal and provincial police and firefighters may be reporting fewer symptoms than other public safety personnel.

The research was funded in part by Public Safety Canada.

“While the results of this research are troubling, the increased reporting among public safety officers is a sign of progress in reducing the stigma associated with post-traumatic stress injuries in public safety officers. This research will help inform our next steps in developing a coordinated action plan to address this issue,” says Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale. “The Government of Canada is pleased to continue to support the research of the University of Regina and its research partners on this issue and I look forward to working with all levels of government and leaders in the public safety community to advance this important work.”

Carleton says the survey results clarify the research team’s understanding of mental health for public safety personnel and hopes it make it easier for public safety personnel to seek help when they need it.

“This is an important step in reducing stigma, raising awareness about how common symptoms are, and building a foundation for critical next steps,” says Carleton.

Those next steps are already underway. Public Safety Canada has now funded a second phase of research that Carleton says will allow his team to be able to perform a deeper dive, and find out even more about the prevalence of mental health issues of Canada’s first responders and other public safety personnel.

“We are also set to release an on-line anonymous tool specifically for public safety personnel to self-screen, offering an indication of whether they might benefit from professional attention,” says Carleton.

Carleton says the tool will be ready in September 2017, and should help bypass stigma and facilitate accessing mental health supports.

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