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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

The Working Mind First Responders offers police a new kind of protection

Beth Milliard

Staff sergeant Beth Milliard is no stranger to the mental health impact of policework. Coming from a police family, she entered her career committed to making mental health a priority — for herself and her fellow officers.

It was that drive to create a more supportive environment that led her to The Working Mind First Responders (TWMFR) training. While at first she was simply looking to explore options for her service, York Regional Police (YRP), she would ultimately become a master trainer with the program.

“Police are very skeptical and very honest. Yet when we piloted this course for the service, almost 100 per cent of the feedback was overwhelmingly positive,” she said, adding with a laugh that the few negative comments had to do with things like trouble finding parking. “After the initial feedback, it became clear that we needed to make the course mandatory for everyone in the service.”

The interactive course, which was recently adapted to a virtual format (until it’s safe to return to in-person learning), aims to build mental health awareness, reduce stigma, and promote resiliency. Using an evidence-based approach, participants learn how to self-assess and talk about mental health, along with strategies to help them cope with challenges and resources to seek out when they need support.

Recognizing the importance of mental health
Although it took over two years to train everyone at YRP, Milliard is not alone in calling it a worthy investment. “People who had been around long before we rolled out the program started asking, ‘Where was this ten years ago?’”

The program has been so successful that YRP has now in fact made it mandatory. But in addition, it’s been integrated into the Ontario Police College curriculum — the training body responsible for all new officers across the province.

For Milliard, this prioritization of mental health among officers is encouraging. “When I went through police college, we had maybe an hour of mental health training focused on dealing with people in crisis. Not only did that add to the misconception that mental illness is black and white — you’re in crisis or you’re fine — we never learned how to recognize warning signs within ourselves, let alone what to do about it.”

Speaking a common language
One of the most important components of the course for Milliard is the Mental Health Continuum Model, which teaches users to assess their mental health at any time using a colour-coded mental health spectrum: green (healthy), yellow (reacting), orange (injured), and red (ill).

“The continuum allows everyone to talk about mental health using the same language,” she said, adding that YRP has taken it one step further by teaching the model to their on-staff psychologists, social workers, and other staff members, allowing for easier communication across the organization.

“Now when someone seeks professional help through work, all they have to say is, ‘I think I’m in the orange,’ and there is an immediate understanding of what that means.”

A changing culture
When Milliard reflects on the culture shift around mental health that she’s witnessed throughout her career, she can’t help but think of her father, a retired officer of 30 years. “My dad spent the last 15 years of his career dealing with fatal car accidents,” she explained. “And in that whole 15 years, no one ever asked him how he was doing or whether he needed some time off. Not once.”

Fortunately, she says, the culture of silence and stigma has come a long way, and with courses like TWMFR, it’s getting better all the time.

“I like to use the body armour analogy,” she said. “Before 1980, bulletproof vests weren’t mandatory in the field. Now, any officer would say it’s unthinkable to go out without that protection. I think the same is true of this course. Now that we have it, it’s almost impossible to imagine doing the job without it. It’s an added layer of protection.”

To learn more about the benefits of TWMFR Virtual for your organization, contact solutions@openingminds.org

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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