Patricia Davies’s Toronto living room has become a refuge for police officers across Ontario. Every Wednesday, a cluster of officers settles in for an exclusive police-only group-therapy session; as far as Ms. Davies knows, the lone one of its kind in Canada.
Only here, within the confines of her art-covered mint-green walls, will they speak candidly about the realities of policing, and the effects it has on their minds and bodies and families.
“That’s the hardest thing for them, to admit that they’re not as invincible as they might think they are,” said Ms. Davies, a therapist.
The issue of officer wellness has been in the spotlight recently, with two separate reviews under way into police-officer suicide deaths in Ontario. But despite growing recognition of the stresses in policing, and their disproportionate rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and mental-health issues, there remains a lingering stigma that leaves many officers coping on their own.
Some officers attend Ms. Davies’s group for months, others have stayed for years. Many credit her with saving their lives.
One member is Hamilton Police Constable Andrew Leng. The 48-year-old has been with HPS for close to two decades, where he inherited the badge number that his father wore for 34 years before him. Policing has always been a crucial part of his identity. But it has also almost killed him.
He has worked on patrol, in drug enforcement, as a detective, acting supervisor, training officer and in the crisis-response unit. He’s seen suicides. Car crashes. Domestic violence. Explosions. Murders. He has been spat on, kicked, punched. He’s had knives pulled on him. Once, on New Year’s Eve, someone tried to run him over with their car.
For years, he coped with alcohol. It was easy to convince himself after a tough shift that he deserved a beer – hell, he deserved 10. He tried to hide it from his family, but on Mother’s Day weekend in 2016, he finally broke down to his dad. He needed help.
After eight weeks at the Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, Ont., Constable Leng remembers the fear he felt as he prepared to return to work.
“Am I going to be operational? How am I going to adapt to this? Am I going to go back to drinking? Am I going to be accepted by my peers?”
When he first sat in Ms. Davies’s living room, listening to fellow officers share their experiences and struggles, he felt understood. And today, three years after a successful return to the front line, Constable Leng says his struggles have made him a better officer: “It enables you to have a better appreciation [for their situations]. I can say ‘Yup, I get it, I’m an alcoholic.’ ”
He has become a go-to for colleagues who are struggling, and has referred more than one to Ms. Davies’s group.
“I really like that because it means they trust the process, and they’re finding it helpful,” she said.
The sessions are funded by the Toronto Police Association (TPA) and are open to any sworn officer for free, regardless of whether they’re with the Toronto Police Service.
Numerous such groups exist for first responders generally, but Ms. Davies argues that police culture is unique. For one thing, as TPA president Mike McCormack says, they are armed.
“Police officers are thrust into situations where they are forced to take an action which has an outcome that can be devastating,” he said – and the effect that has on an officer’s psyche is not something most are comfortable speaking about with anyone else.
Ms. Davies has seen officers from Halton Region, Peel Region, the RCMP, OPP, York Region, Hamilton. Between six and 10 officers show up each session – though, she figures she’s in touch with at least 30 at any given time.
Their issues vary, Ms. Davies stresses. Not all her clients have addiction issues or PTSD. Some of them are suspended and in professional, financial or even legal trouble. Many are divorced or on the verge. Some are suicidal or have been.
Through a survey of more than 4,000 Canadian front-line officers, Linda Duxbury, a professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University, found that many of the primary stressors cited by police are not operational, but organizational. A main concern, she said, is that they are juggling “multiple competing, ever-changing No. 1 priorities.” Social services are being cut and those duties are falling on police – even when they are understaffed or unequipped.
Frank Lane, 60, a retired Toronto constable, is another regular attendee of Ms. Davies’s group. Throughout his 34 years of policing, Mr. Lane says, alcohol abuse was a normal part of the culture. Officers would decompress over after-work beers, without talking about the stress itself.
Today, he has been sober for three years. He is heartened to see younger officers discuss their issues more openly – “and thank Christ for that," he says. “In my day, there was no way in hell you’d do that. You’d be blacklisted.”
But he does not think police services’ conversations are going far enough.
“They spend a fortune on ‘wellness’ stuff,” Mr. Lane said. “But they don’t want to acknowledge that there are alcoholics and drug addicts out there with guns that need help.”
In Hamilton, Deputy Chief Frank Bergen said that in addition to more formalized programs and supports, he is pleased to see more officers willing to have these conversations with each other.
“Things have changed greatly,” he says, since he started 37 years ago. “Where we are today is where we need to be. But it’s not the end."
Constable Leng, meanwhile, is working on becoming an addictions counsellor, which he hopes to integrate into his policing. And when his own issues bubble to the surface, he takes a break. He writes poetry. He walks his German shepherd, Sherlock.
“I call my wife, I call my sponsor, I say my serenity prayer, I own it,” he says.