Stigma is a dirty word. It has a way to keep people in hiding and keep their feelings at bay. It has a way of making those who feel its effects think that they have no future. I know this firsthand…I am a career police officer who is recovering from an Occupational Stress Injury commonly known as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
In 2011, I was working a routine night shift in Surrey, British Columbia, when I encountered a fleeing suspect, armed with a gun. In the subsequent encounter, this man was fatally injured and my life was forever changed. It took a while for me to realize how much it had changed as I did my best to hide the difficulty I was having from everyone around me, especially at work. I’ll be blunt about the reason for this: Stigma.
As a police officer, you’re expected to be strong, knowledgeable and able to handle everything that comes your way. Who does society call upon when they need help the most? When tragedy strikes or when disaster need be averted or when people are just plain scared…they call the police. And while we handle all of this with bravery and professionalism on a daily basis, the reality is, the scenarios and the fear that we encountered continue to play themselves out in our minds long after the situation is resolved. But, most of us go back to work the next shift and don’t want to discuss those feelings. And why? Because we’re just not sure how seriously we will be taken in the future should someone find out that we are human and that we have feelings like everyone else. The reality is that we are not just police officers. We are parents, spouses, coaches, volunteers, neighbours and friends.
I suffered in silence for far too long because I thought that if I came forward to deal with a lot of the issues that I was facing I would lose my job and be labeled as “broken”. A lot of things had made me believe this. Some of it had to do with what was so prevalent in the media about PTSD at the time. It took another police officer who had similar experiences to tell me that it was okay to get help before I was ready to start recovering. Once I was ready, it became abundantly clear to me that recovery was possible. So, in other words, I didn’t lose my job and I wasn’t branded as “broken”, like the stigma around mental illness had made me believe. And once I started to recover, I made a vow to myself to make a change to the way we talked about PTSD, and Occupational Stress Injuries in policing and first responders.
I took action. I worked with the RCMP to produce a video that spoke about my experiences with Occupational Stress Injury and how recovery was possible. My hope was to change the way that people thought of and talked about these issues. I could not have imagined the depth of the conversation that this started. It affected real change that continues today.
And I could not have done this without the support of my family, friends and the RCMP. So I guess that’s my message today: removing the stigma around these issues starts with you. Take action to change the way we talk about and think about mental illness. Start with someone you know who may be suffering… Let them know that you are there for them. Let them know that it’s okay to be a human being and to have feelings. With such small actions, we can start to not only effect change, but smash stigma…the dirty word that needs to be taken out of our vocabulary.