Police organizations across the country sign up for R2MR training

For first responders, the risk of physical and emotional damage is ever-present – a fact not lost on police personnel who experience mental health problems and mental illnesses following highly stressful encounters on the job. To make things worse, stigma associated with mental health problems and mental illnesses keeps many from getting help. But thanks to the Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR), that story is rapidly changing in police organizations across Canada.

R2MR was originally developed by Canada’s Department of National Defence (DND) which saw the need for mental resiliency and mental health training in soldiers who were going into or coming out of potentially stressful and traumatic theatres of operation such as Afghanistan. Seeing R2MR’s potential for those who work in crisis situations, the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s (MHCC) Opening Minds initiative partnered with the DND and Calgary Police Services (CPS) to create an adaptation that would fit a police organization’s culture and values.

The program is now fully underway at CPS, with some 400 members (uniformed and civilian) having taken the training to date, and evaluations are confirming the power of R2MR to increase mental resilience and reduce stigma.  On November 17, 2014, CPS hosted a news conference to declare its commitment to the psychological health and safety of its members, and to offer the benefit of its experience to the Canadian policing community.

Throughout 2014, interest in CPS’s R2MR program has blossomed and continues to grow. Some of Canada’s largest police departments are either offering training or scheduled to begin. These include municipalities like Vancouver, Edmonton, Peel, York, Toronto, Niagara, Ottawa, and Quebec City. In December 2014, the Ontario Police College – which offers training to police departments across that province – delivered a train-the-trainer course involving representatives from eight police services. Other courses in the program are a four-hour basic course for uniform members and civilians, and an eight-hour course for supervisors and senior officers. 

Although other kinds of mental health training exist for police and similar occupations, what sets R2MR apart is its ability to address stigma, and its practical approach to identifying mental health problems and mental illnesses using the four-colour Mental Health Continuum Model: green for healthy, yellow for reacting, orange for injured, and red for ill. These features, combined with a strong track record based on the DND and CPS research, have resulted in a winning product.

“Word has gotten out that this is a good program,” says Micheal Pietrus, Director of Opening Minds. “People are already seeing the benefits of individuals coming forward and reporting that they’re in the red and getting appropriate help and treatment because their supervisors know what strategies to follow based on the training.”

By the nature of their work, police and other emergency service workers face a level of stress seldom encountered by most people.  Pietrus says the time has come for the psychological risk experienced by these workers, and the stigma around mental health problems and mental illnesses they encounter, to finally receive widespread recognition and to be addressed with effective training.

R2MR offers hope for recovery for individuals, but also responds to costly workforce issues. One study showed that time off work for psychological issues can average 65 days, versus 11 days for respiratory illness. Similarly, the costs associated with psychological episodes average $17,734, versus $2,907 for respiratory illness (Dewa, Chau & Dermer, 2010).

Pietrus anticipates that the majority of Canada’s police departments will consider adopting R2MR, and that other high-stress occupations will too, such as firefighters and paramedics. Already, the Calgary Fire Department and Ontario Fire College have shown interest, and the Health Sciences Association of Alberta – which represents emergency service workers and allied professions in Alberta – has expressed support. Moreover, the MHCC recently partnered with Ontario’s Public Services Health & Safety Association to host a forum on psychological health and safety for emergency service workers (see story in this issue of Catalyst).