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World Mental Health Day: Police need easier access to supports

Failure to support these individuals can have serious consequences and even become fatal, Mark Baxter warns.

By Mark Baxter

Monday, October 9, 2023
Originally published in the Hamilton Spectator, available here

It has been a difficult year in policing, with an unprecedented number of officers dying while serving their communities.

These on-duty deaths affect officers and police services members, friends and family in the specific region and community, and they also affect police services members at large. Here in Ontario — and across the country.

With Tuesday being World Mental Health Day, we want to recognize not only those who have been killed in the line of duty, but also those who have died by suicide because of the line of duty.

Front-line workers are not only having to deal with the stress and mental anguish of the difficult calls they respond to and the difficult situations they are faced with — they are also having to work through the deaths of their colleagues. The same colleagues who had showed up day in and day out to do the same job they themselves are doing.

Although employee wellness is primarily the responsibility of the employer, for a variety of reasons, currently, our members and their families rely on not-for-profit and other external organizations to get them through their darkest days. It’s these organizations on the front-lines that are helping our members in crisis and supporting their families. And while the support of these organizations is great — it can’t be the only support.

In 2016, Ontario passed the Supporting Ontario’s First Responders Act. This act made it easier for first responders to access worker compensation when trauma impacted their ability to work.

It was a significant step forward in the fight against mental illness for first responders and, no doubt, saved the lives of many of our colleagues by allowing them more accessible and earlier access to mental health supports. The WSIB processes that came from this legislation are far from perfect. Still, work is continuing to make sure the spirit of the legislation is reflected in the process, and we are confident the WSIB processes will be improved to ensure every worker who needs it can access these essential supports.

In 2023, it should be obvious that any police services employee could potentially need to take some time away to work through mental health issues due to the pressures faced on the job, including the constant exposure to traumatic events. But unfortunately, there are policies in place within far too many police workplaces that continue to stigmatize workers who are choosing to prioritize their mental well-being.

Senior commanders and human resources managers in every police service in Ontario play a critical role in how members navigate the WSIB process that allows first responders quick access to WSIB benefits by assuming that mental health injuries that happen are work-related. It is imperative that police services across the province respect this presumption of work-relatedness in full.

Police services with policies in place that require them to file an intention to appeal with the WSIB every time a claim for mental health support is registered by a worker, must rescind this direction immediately. It is harmful to workers working through mental health challenges and only continues the stigma around mental health.

This makes it more difficult for members to come forward and get the help they so badly need. The WSIB must also ensure that the presumption of work-relatedness is respected rather than rejecting claims without evidence.

Appeals of psychological injury claims are not only undermining the intention of the presumptive coverage, but also causing additional harm to members when they are most vulnerable and finally come forward to seek treatment. This practice, combined with a WSIB framework that is difficult to navigate and quick to reject claims, is also putting barriers in place for members to come forward when we are trying to break the stigma and encouraging those suffering to speak up and seek assistance.

We need to make it easier for employees to seek mental health support and accommodations, not harder. And until that is done, the mental wellness of police service members and first responders across the province will continue to be under threat.

Failure to support these individuals can have serious consequences and even become fatal. Every day, our members go to work to ensure the safety and security of their communities — and they deserve better.

Mark Baxter is the president of the Police Association of Ontario.

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