Vol. 77, No. 3Cover stories

Far from home

Supporting psychological health of police on mission

A study found that allowing police officers posted to Afghanistan to spend a short period of time at another location before returning home helped alleviate some mission-related stress. Credit: Combat Camera


The job of police officers in Canada is stressful and risky enough. But when they are deployed overseas for a year to failed and fragile states to assist with policing development, far from the comforts of home and family, police officers must learn to cope both with different risks to personal health and safety, as well as with elements of hardship associated with working and living conditions.

Sources of stress may arise from a single critical event or can accumulate over time in mission. The impact on personal health, family dynamics and work reintegration after returning home from a one-year mission can range from minimal impact to significant changes.

Psychological services guided by study

The International Health Protection and Wellness team of the RCMP's International Liaison and Deployment Centre (ILDC) has the responsibility to mitigate physical and psychological health risks across the deployment cycle.

The ILDC psychologists conducted a study in 2014 to better understand the factors that influence resiliency in mission and the predictors of successful psychological outcomes post-mission.

The ultimate goal of this study is to use the findings to improve the effectiveness of the processes in the selection and preparation phase of pre-mission, the quality and type of support offered to police officers and their families during mission, and the support in the reintegration phase.

This study involved more than 500 police officers from the RCMP and partner municipal and provincial police services who served in international peace operation missions between 2007 and 2014.

The study examined the relationship among:

  • sources of stress pre-mission;
  • stress and ability to cope during mission; and
  • a variety of factors linked to health and wellbeing after mission, including personal and family relationships.

The results confirmed the importance of comprehensively assessing psychological health as part of the selection process for high-risk duties such as peace operation missions.

More precisely, according to the survey results, candidates who are experiencing significant stress at work or at home before a mission are more likely to have trouble dealing with the additional stressors they face in mission.

While it is only one factor that may affect a candidate's suitability for mission, pre-departure work and family stress is carefully considered during the pre-mission psychological assessments because of its known relationship with the ability to cope in mission.

The study also found that personal resilience — an individual's natural ability to bounce back from adversity and take challenges in stride — is a stronger predictor of good post-mission adjustment than exposure to the mission risks/hardships themselves.

In other words, if we want to decrease the likelihood of post-mission health and adjustment issues, we need to not only select police officers who are suitable for mission. We also must prepare them to be resilient.

Pre-mission psychological training

Pre-deployment psychological training at RCMP headquarters in Ottawa educates about stress and emotional reactivity, teaches applied stress management strategies, and addresses the stigma from seeking help for psychological distress.

This training teaches police officers to view psychological health as a continuum that goes from healthy to reactive to symptomatic to ill — versus a black-and-white labeling of emotional health as fine or problematic.

Each psychological state is associated with various coping strategies depending on the severity or impact of the reactions. The core message is that anyone has the ability to be resilient and bounce back from personal and operational challenges.

Study results

Of the more than 500 police officers surveyed from the RCMP and partner municipal and provincial police services who served in international peace operation missions between 2007 and 2014:

  • 91 per cent of mission participants were exposed to human misery and degradation on a large scale.
  • 42 per cent were exposed to human hardship due to natural disaster.
  • 85 per cent were exposed to the threat of attack at least once.
  • 15 per cent experienced the serious injury or loss of a friend, colleague or co-worker in mission.
  • 34 per cent indicated that living conditions were a cause of moderate or great hardship.
  • 37 per cent indicated that working conditions were a cause of moderate or great hardship.
  • 49 per cent had to deal with a stressful situation from home while in mission.
  • 68 per cent said that family issues had settled by four weeks post-mission — that ratio increases to 92 per cent after 12 weeks.
  • 50 per cent reported having readjusted to work life by five weeks post-mission — that ratio increases to 78 per cent at 12 weeks.

Despite the stress they experienced in mission, most respondents indicated they were able to cope and maintain a sense of control while abroad. This may speak to the selection and preparation of resilient candidates.

The study results showed that many who go in mission experience periods when they feel highly stressed or down, despite being able to maintain effectiveness in their role in mission.

The study also found that police turn first to peers in mission when feeling pressured and demoralized. This confirmation is encouraging, as ILDC's approach to in-mission support has a strong peer-to-peer focus. Over the past two years, ILDC psychologists have been developing a two-tiered program to enhance this natural support network.

During the pre-mission psychological session, every member of the departing contingent is trained in basic peer support, based on principles of 'I've got your back.' Volunteers are then sought for each contingent to serve as designated mission peer supports.

These volunteers are given individual training in more advanced strategies and are offered support and guidance by an ILDC psychologist via Skype, email or phone as needed.

Because they are embedded with their cohort, it is hopefully easier for people to reach out to them.

Targeted post-mission support

ILDC promotes good mental health following mission by easing the transition back to home from missions, conducting psychological assessments post-mission and providing education on reintegration.

To illustrate, the ILDC introduced a third-location decompression (TLD) program in 2009 during the 2005-2014 mission to Afghanistan, where Canadian police contributed to training and advising nearly 23,000 members of the Afghan National Police.

The TLD allowed those posted to Afghanistan to spend a short period of time in another location — in this case, Bad Homburg, Germany — before returning home. Because the mission was characterized by a high operational tempo, this TLD was structured as a step-down process to allow some stress reduction and aid the mission mindset to subside.

The results of the 2014 study suggest that the TLD program was useful in increasing self-awareness and promoting early help-seeking. Specifically, the Afghanistan returnees reported experiencing slightly more psychological reactivity — such as fatigue, irritability and hypervigilance — than others in the weeks following their return home. Yet interestingly, their long-term off-duty sick rates were lower than participants of other missions.

This would suggest that the Afghanistan contingents were indeed more reactive early on, but they also reported greater early psychological assistance and ultimately, very little long-term sick leave.

The study also confirmed that family and work readjustment post-mission takes time. One to three months is a typical time frame for successful reintegration. Therefore, education to police officers and their families on common readjustment issues is a key.

In fact, the ILDC has recently developed a reintegration guide to familiarize police, their partners and other family members with the challenges that may arise in the reintegration and post-mission phase, including helpful strategies to address the issues.

In short, the ILDC's International Health Protection and Wellness team strives to support the psychological health of police officers and the wellness of their families across the deployment cycle. Its approach is evidence-based, with the goal of enhancing their service delivery in a targeted way by doing the right thing at the right time for the right clients.

The RCMP manages the deployment of Canadian police to international peace operations missions, which includes members of the force as well as 26 municipal and provincial police services. Since 1989, approximately 3,800 police officers have served in 66 missions in 33 countries around the world. Currently, around 100 police officers are serving on missions in Cambodia, Haiti, Ukraine and the West Bank.

Dr. Sylvie Bourgeois is a registered psychologist and the head of the RCMP's International Health Protection and Wellness (IHPW) unit. She leads numerous occupational health initiatives for police officers in high-risk duties.

Dr. Paul Munson is a registered psychologist and has worked with Canadian Forces Health Services as national practice leader for psychology. He provides consultation services to the IHPW.

Céline Paris is a registered psychologist who has worked with Canadian Forces Health Services. She is in private practice and provides consultation services to the IHPW.

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