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Response to The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP)

August 09, 2021

The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) is calling on the Government of Ontario to make legislative changes which, in part, will reduce income replacement for injured workers suffering from occupational Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In their resolution they also stated that their members who are suffering from PTSD “are not receiving the most appropriate care at the earliest opportunity to speed recovery” and that “locally-engaged mental health professionals may not be experienced to deal with complicated work-related injury and there is no set practice to manage this.” Their recommendations are counter to effective treatment of PTSD, which can be a life-threatening disorder.  


To imply that a police officer who is suffering from PTSD would now be more “incentivized” to return to work because of a reduction in loss of earning shows a very profound lack of appreciation and understanding of the condition of PTSD. 


To imply that community based mental health practitioners such Clinical Psychologists are not competent to provide assessment and effective treatment, aimed at returning officers to work illustrates a significant lack of knowledge on their part. They have ignored the massive amount of work that has gone into passing PTSD legislation for First Responders, the development of the Community Mental Health Program by OPA and WSIB to provide rapid assessment and treatment services for their members, and the proliferation of training for already highly trained mental health professionals to equip them to assess and effectively treat Officers in their community and help them get back to work. Psychologists are highly trained, work closely with WSIB and other insurers and work closely with First Responder organizations in their community. 


The OACP has not provided evidence to back up their claims that Officers are not returning to work because they are well-paid while they are off. It is clear that the presumptive legislation as well as  efforts to shift culture and reduce mental health stigma led to an increase in officers feeling they could reach out for help without repercussion to their careers. The subsequent increase in claims undoubtedly resulted from pent-up demand caused by a chronic condition which was previously unrecognized by WSIB. 


In our experience as Clinical Psychologists who work with Police Officers, they do not lack incentive; most of them want nothing more than to return to work.  But their injuries are so chronic, and the symptoms so entrenched and severe, that from a safety perspective, they simply cannot return. We would prefer if Police Officers presented earlier in their careers, or soon after a traumatic event, so that there is little to no time off and we can keep them at our job while they complete effective treatment to prevent relapse. Instead, we commonly assess and treat officers who have endured decades of traumatic events with no assessment or treatment or contact with any mental health professional. These are the officers that are taking so long to recover: Those who were denied benefits prior to the presumptive legislation, and who made their WSIB claims in the first few years after the legislation came out, as stigma began to drop.


This resolution brings the stigma back. Further stigmatizing police officers for suffering from occupational stress injuries like PTSD is called Sanctuary Trauma. Sanctuary trauma refers to the events that follow the injury; when someone expects to receive understanding and support from their employer and colleagues, but instead experiences rejection, judgment, stigma, and even harassment or abuse, the result is sanctuary trauma.  Sanctuary trauma creates a challenging barrier to both recovery and the return to the original employer and occupation.  

Sanctuary Trauma prevents effective recovery.  This is not due to “malingering” or “milking the system,” but due to how the injured are treated by those in positions of power, the people who are supposed to “have their back.” This is an effect which is observable in both physical and psychological injuries. Research by Canadian psychologist Dr. Michael Sullivan and others demonstrates that the experience of unjust treatment makes it more likely that an embittered injured worker will suffer higher degrees of impairment and remain off work for a more extended period. They literally heal more slowly. And of course, a poor relationship with the employer makes returning to work all the more difficult.


Cumulative PTSD requires longer treatment for effective symptom relief because its treatment is more complex. The very nature of police work has the potential to wear down the most resilient police officers. It also often extends into their off duty lives which further complicates the care and treatment plan. Everybody in an Officer’s family is affected.

The OPA has profound respect for the work and responsibilities Officers as well as Police Chiefs perform in this province. We recognize how important it is for our communities to keep Officers on the job. We recognize that work, when it is possible to maintain safely, can be part of the process of healing. Psychologists are proud when we’re able to return Officers to their work, and are willing to keep them working—when it’s clinically possible and responsible to do so.


The belief that psychologists are not experienced and applying evidence-based treatment methods to their patients suffering from PTSD is grossly inaccurate, given the rigorous professional training and certification we undergo, and the programs that we have developed to provide a high standard of care. Implying otherwise does a disservice to officers currently in treatment, or who are considering treatment.


These policies will only be another barrier to healing and return to work.  The paradigm needs to shift to prevention in addition to rapid and effective assessment and treatment of injured officers. 

                                                

Dr. Jason Ramsay                     Dr. Jonathan Douglas              Julie Goldenson 

OPA President                          Former OPA President              OPA President-Elect