The number of mental health consultations has jumped in some police forces in Quebec, according to the police unions of the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) and the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM).
At the SPVM, the number of consultations rose from 3,200 in 2017 to 5,000 in 2021, according to figures provided by the Brotherhood of Police Officers and Policewomen of Montreal. From 2020 to 2021, we are talking about a jump in the number of consultations of around 16%. The same person may have consulted several times, nuance the president of the Fraternity, Yves Francœur, and the police are also more open than before to seek help. But the rise in mental health demands is undeniable, he says.
Among active SQ police officers, the number of files identified by the La Vigile organization, which deals in particular with peace officers, paramedics and soldiers in distress, increased from 219 in 2018 to 441 in 2021, reveal the figures provided by the Quebec Provincial Police Association (APPQ). The same file can contain several consultations, specifies the union.
This increase in consultations can be explained in particular by pandemic fatigue, which is exacerbated among peace officers. Not to mention the increase in interventions with citizens struggling with mental health problems.
Not only do they have to take care of themselves, but they have to take care of many more demands [de la population] in psychological health.
François Lemay, President of the Federation of Municipal Police Officers of Quebec
Lydia Royer, social worker at La Vigile, observes “a lot of anxiety and distress”. With the health crisis, there are fewer “protective factors”, such as the entourage and activities “that do good”. “It can bring an imbalance more quickly,” she says.
The effect of social networks
According to Dominic Ricard, president of the Association of provincial police officers of Quebec, there is also “the social environment which is more harmful than before”. The work of the police is strongly criticized on social networks, he illustrates. “Sometimes you have to work fast in a hostile environment and take more robust measures to avoid an escalation,” he reports. In a context where you find yourself filmed, there are all kinds of reactions. According to Yves Francœur, the videos circulating on social networks that only show excerpts from police interventions create “a feeling of injustice” among peace officers.
Mr. Ricard says he has no problem “that we ask ourselves questions”. “But popular judgment is very, very, very quick. »
Last summer, Alex Marcotte, then a police officer with the SQ in Senneterre, in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, was filmed during an intervention. He first tried to subdue a man in crisis on his own. Without success.
Unless you’re the Hulk, there aren’t 10,000 ways to deal with a situation like this. I really fought with the individual.
Alex Marcotte, 29, former SQ police officer
The images circulated on social media. “You want to shout at people: ‘I did my job well!’ », says Mr. Marcotte. But the “use of force model” is difficult for the population to understand, he believes.
“It didn’t work in my head”
Then, last December, Alex Marcotte gave up on his dream of being a “little guy” and resigned from the SQ following another particularly difficult intervention. Three weeks after the incident, he began to experience chest pains and anxiety, he said. “When I saw a police tank go by, I became anxious,” says the man, who had been a police officer with the Sûreté du Québec since December 2019. The event is still being examined by the Bureau of Independent Investigations.
Alex Marcotte contacted La Vigile. With the help of the psychologist, he was able to accept the fact that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, he says. Impossible for him to go back to work. “As soon as I imagined going back to patrol, it didn’t work in my head,” says Mr. Marcotte, who now works in administration.
Alex Marcotte deplores the lack of support received by his organization. “When the event happened, I had a missed call from the prevention of the Sûreté du Québec, he says. They never called me back and they didn’t even leave a message. »
“The weight of the uniform is heavy in 2022”
According to Julie*, a police officer who joined the SPVM in the 2000s, peace officers “are no longer respected”. Media coverage of certain events creates distrust of police officers. “The weight of the uniform is heavy in 2022”, underlines the 44-year-old woman, in the process of having a permanent disability recognized. As she is still employed by the police force, she requested anonymity.
Seven years ago, Julie was diagnosed with major depression. She had experienced two traumatic events at work. In 2010, she intervened in an accident involving a driver and three seriously injured young girls. Three years later, she was marked by the murder of a taxi driver. Since 2015, she has fallen on sick leave seven times. Her last gradual return was in June 2021. After six days, she had to leave work.
I am too fragile. We squeezed the lemon and there’s no more juice in it.
Julie*, SPVM police officer
Julie still lives with sequelae. “I jump at nothing,” she says. I come with numb arms and sweating. As a police officer, she would have liked to work in mental health. So that his suffering “serves for [son] organization,” she says. But he was refused.
Hospitalized in 2018, Julie confides that the fact of going from the uniform to the hospital gown is special. “You can’t be treated like anyone else,” she says.
“It takes a specialized support service”
At the SPVM, psychologists devote themselves exclusively to peace officers, which means that they “understand the reality of the police,” explains Yves Francœur. Unlike Montreal, the rest of the municipal police officers benefit from the same assistance program as other city employees, explains François Lemay, of the Federation of Municipal Police Officers of Quebec.
“It takes a specialized assistance service for the police. The nature of the work means that you can’t compare yourself to anyone,” says Mr. Lemay.
If we don’t take immediate decisions, in a few years we will be in a much worse situation than today.
François Lemay, of the Federation of Municipal Police Officers of Quebec
According to Dominic Ricard, at the SQ, a “pan-Quebec program” is necessary for “the entire police community”.
Joined by The Press, the SPVM says it takes psychological health issues seriously, but cannot “comment on data to which it does not have access and whose methodology it does not know”. The Sûreté du Québec did not respond to our interview requests.
“Most vulnerable” workers
Quebec police officers are “more vulnerable” psychologically than other workers because of the traumatic events they may experience at work, argues Andrée-Ann Deschênes, professor of public security management at the School of Management of the University of Quebec. in Trois-Rivieres. “We have to take charge of the police community now,” she believes.
If the number of psychological consultations has increased among the police, this is also the case for other professions, argues Andrée-Ann Deschênes. The police environment is therefore “no worse than another”, concludes Mme Deschenes. The latter was a consultant for the mental health component of the report of the advisory committee on the police reality in Quebec. What sets peace officers apart is that “when they’re not well, they’re really not well,” she says. They often wait too long before consulting, she says. In addition to the lack of psychological services adapted to the reality of the police, the assistance offered to these workers is not uniform across the province, she points out.
According to Andrée-Ann Deschênes, there are no more suicides among police officers than among the general population. On the other hand, peace officers have more suicidal thoughts, points out Ms.me Deschenes. According to a 2018 study, 8.3% of municipal and provincial police officers in Canada have considered suicide. With regard to the federal police, this proportion was 9.9%. In the rest of the population, 5.8% of citizens reported having had suicidal thoughts. The police think more about killing themselves because they know the effective means to do so, explains Ms.me Deschenes. “They also possess the trait of impulsivity, a trait recognized in suicidal people,” she points out.
In 2017, one in two Quebec police officers claimed to have experienced a potentially traumatic event during their career, reports Andrée-Ann Deschênes. A peace officer is more at risk of experiencing psychological distress when he has between 6 and 20 years of experience, indicates the professor. “One of the hypotheses is that after six years, I realize that I who wanted to save the world, I am always in situations darker than black,” she explains. Not having achieved professional goals at this time could also be a factor, she points out.
- Approximate number of active SPVM police officers represented by the Montreal Police Brotherhood
source: Montreal Police Brotherhood
- Number of members represented by the Quebec Provincial Police Association
source: Quebec Provincial Police Association