They are not even wearing a badge yet and already they are being warned of the mental toll the job may take.
They are told of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Of the stigma around it. Of the shame that is sometimes associated with it in the culture of policing — a world where strength and stoicism are often held up as ideals.
This blunt lecture from a retired cop with PTSD to a roomful of Mohawk College students on Wednesday — many of whom are considering a career in policing — is not intended to scare them away from the badge.
But it is a reality check.
“Do you really understand what you’re getting yourself into?” asks Syd Gravel.
Gravel was an Ottawa police constable in 1987 when he was called to an armed robbery. Confronted by a suspect, Gravel repeatedly ordered him to show his hands. The man didn’t reply and began turning toward him. Gravel believed the man had a gun. He fired a fatal shot.
Gravel went to the man’s body. There was no gun.
“It absolutely devastated me that I made a decision to take a life and he wasn’t armed.”
The critical incident dropped Gravel into the pit of PTSD.
He’d been trained to use his weapon. He’d never been trained in how to cope with how he felt about it afterward.
Veteran police officers were never told about PTSD when they came on the job. And many have had little education or training in that area since.
“That’s why so many of us older officers were so badly damaged,” he says.
If the stigma around PTSD is going to change, says Gravel, that change will be driven by rookie cops coming onto the job with a different attitude and better understanding about it.
That’s the approach being taken by Dennis Campbell, who teaches health and wellness to Mohawk students in the policing and corrections program.
A cop’s fitness isn’t just about the laps she can run, says Campbell. It’s also about mental fitness. Knowing how to deal with job stress is as important as working out in the gym.
But the workplace culture has to shift to where asking for help is not considered a sign of weakness.
“We come from an environment where we feel we are the ones who have to be in control,” says Gravel, noting all first responders can likely relate. “So over time, that becomes who you are. It becomes difficult to say I need help.”
With strong support from his wife, Gravel did seek help. And his career flourished. He was promoted to staff sergeant, he became the service’s recruitment officer and he did a peacekeeping tour in Africa with the United Nations.
He also began a peer support group at the Ottawa Police Service, has written a book about his personal experience with PTSD and lectures regularly to police.
Several Hamilton cops attended his Mohawk lecture.
“We really needed to look at the mindset of people getting into emergency services,” he says. “It’s not a mystery if you’re going into emergency services that you’re going to be dealing with traumatic events.”
Gravel suggests annual, mandatory mental health checks for all police officers. Annual, so a therapist has a “baseline” to start with should an officer experience a critical incident. Mandatory, so the stigma is eliminated.
There must also be proper support for officers during and after an incident and that support must involve their families, as well. It has become more common for senior police officers to be trained in identifying signs of PTSD in their officers, he says, but officers are adept at keeping those signs hidden from all but those they are closest to.
The day he retired and took his uniform off for the last time, Gravel realized the burden of all he had experienced in his career.
That uniform, he says, weighed heavily.
Susan Clairmont’s commentary appears regularly in The Spectator. firstname.lastname@example.org