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The Inside Story: Chief Blair responds to PTSD investigation & York police's peer support program

This week, a CityNews exclusive has looked into serious allegations that the Toronto Police Service has been failing some officers with mental health issues, including those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In the final of a three-part special investigation When the Blue Line Flat Lines, The Inside Story’s Avery Haines gave chief Bill Blair a chance to respond.

Blair said the two recent police suicides are concerning.

“I think it is important to examine not just an individual’s perspective on what or may not have been available to them, but what is actually there, and how those services are being accessed,” he said.

Police said that as of 2014, all officers receive mental health training, that anyone exposed to a traumatic call is debriefed and that their Family Employee Assistance Plan offers 24-hour call-in counselling and referrals.

Blair said the force hired two full-time psychologists, adding that he doesn’t think it’s fair to suggest a great deal hasn’t been done.

The chief said these psychologists, who have offices at police headquarters, have an open door to any officer and that all officers are trained in recognizing PTSD.

Meanwhile, in York Region, a new program is actively searching out potential problems before they begin.

The Internal Peer Support Team is a full-time unit led by Staff Sgt. Brad McKay who has been wearing a badge for 33 years.

“I was involved in a shooting where it resulted in a loss of life. It was a justified shooting but it impacted me quite heavily,” McKay said.

“As a result of that I was determined to try and make a difference.”

McKay said the officers don’t have to suffer in silence and can seek help from a peer.

Twenty-nine York police officers, who were nominated by their colleagues, are part of the Internal Peer Support Team that launched in June.

The peer supporters are from all levels and ranks, and they all receive extensive training in PTSD and suicide-prevention with a mandate to be proactive and not reactive. The team looks at the calls and reaches out to the affected officers.

McKay said he gets a printout twice a day and monitors the major calls.

“We look at them to see if they are of the type that is high-risk to cause an operational stress injury. If we do think that way, then we send our peers after them,” he said.

For the York officers on this team, PTSD is not a four-letter word.

It was the 2011 death of his friend York Const. Garrett Styles that plunged Const. Blair McQuillan into darkness.

“I don’t feel any stigma around experiencing PTSD,” McQuillan said.

“When I was dealing with my depression, I went and approached my sergeant at the time. He said I know how bad you feel right now, but eventually you’re going to be thankful for this and you’re going to be able to see other people that are struggling and you’re going to be able to help them.”

Const. Andy Pattenden is also on this team. His PTSD was triggered in part by a head-on crash in which he was a passenger and his sergeant was driving. They were both airlifted to different trauma hospitals.

“What I’ve come to realize now is that it’s not a sign of weakness to have the reaction [and] to have an adverse effect when something bad happens, and you have to deal with it. If you don’t process it, you don’t process that trauma, [then] it never goes away and can come back up at any time, and that’s what’s so concerning,” Pattenden said.

Toronto police had a similar program for years, but it was disbanded in 2010 and outsourced to an Employee Assistance Program with an 800 number.

Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack said the union is pushing to bring back that program.

“We want to make it that the service takes more of a role in reaching out to our officers and not always depending on our officers to reach out to them,” he said.

You can reach Avery Haines on Twitter at @CityAvery. The Inside Story runs every Tuesday and Thursday on CityNews.

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