By Megan Harrison
Jon Hall sometimes woke up at night screaming from violent nightmares. The 33-year-old Ottawa Police constable suffered panic episodes, anxiety, and hypervigilance – all tell-tale signs of an illness he wasn’t aware he had.
Hall has, in some ways, become the public face of Ottawa Police Service’s plan for “post-traumatic stress disorder prevention,” which it will submit to the provincial government later this month in response to new requirements to mitigate mental health issues among first responders.
The plan targets different stigmas that may prevent police officers such as Hall, who suffer from PTSD, from coming forward, said Deputy Chief Steve Bell.
Under the Ontario First Responders Act, which came into effect last April, PTSD is recognized as a work-related illness, and police, firefighters and paramedics will be eligible for Work Safety and Insurance Board coverage.
Employers of workers with “presumptive coverage” – whose PTSD symptoms will be assumed to be work related – are required to provide the Ministry of Labour with information on their workplace PTSD prevention plans by April 23, according to Janet Deline, issues coordinator for the ministry.
Once the plan is in place, it could help police officers including Hall — also known online as The Bearded Cop — whose PTSD initially went undiagnosed.
Throughout his 11-year service with the Ottawa police force, Hall has tried to repress the images and feelings that he collected with the many deaths he’d seen.
“It’s those gruesome images, those smells, for me that have resonated and stuck with me the most.”
Hall said he understood this as being just a part of his job until one day a fellow officer confided that he was suffering from PTSD, sharing symptoms that Hall realized were much like his.
After this conversation, he decided to pursue help, and last year was diagnosed with PTSD and depression. That prompted him to reflect on his own mental health – something he believes more first responders need to do.
The proposed PTSD prevention plan “creates that conversation,” said Hall, who tweets and blogs about mental health, policing and traffic safety.
One of the main goals of this plan is to reach out to people who don’t come forward to get help and to create an ongoing conversation on the stigma surrounding mental illness that persists within first responder services, Hall said.
Provincial legislation requires the plan to address prevention. However, some have argued that PTSD isn’t preventable for police.
“We can never, in policing, prevent PTSD,” Bell said.
But what the plan seeks to do is try to combat the stigma present in police ranks and encourage a more supportive culture, he said.
The plan is separated into three parts — environment, culture and individual — with each having three “phases” rather than strict timelines, according to Bell.
The plan will ensure Ottawa police “have the best programming, the most engaged individuals and a really supportive culture in our organization to make sure people are getting all the help as early as they can,” Bell explained.
The logistics still need to be determined, but Bell said that funding has increased in areas relating to their overall wellness strategy, including PTSD claims. This is to account for an increased number of claims.
The number of workplace safety claims related to “traumatic events” has increased five-fold since the First Responders Act came into effect last year, from four in 2015 to 20 in 2016, Chief Charles Bordeleau has revealed.
The ministry will be posting the plans on its website, after it receives all the submissions, Deline said. The implementation and next steps of the plan will be up to the Ottawa police.
Heightened concern about the impact of traumatic events on police officers comes at a time of rising public concern about racial profiling and police violence in the aftermath of last year’s death of Abdirahman Abdi while being arrested in Hintonburg.