Mental health an early focus for Saskatoon’s new police chief

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Police Chief Cam McBride is seeking to improve supports for Saskatoon police officers.

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Looking out at a crowd of more than 200 people, many of them fellow police officers decked out in dress uniforms covered in gold braid and shining medals, newly sworn-in Saskatoon Police Chief Cam McBride — a self-confessed “Saskatoon boy who dreamed of being a police officer,” visibly grappled with the emotion of reaching the pinnacle of the police service he first joined 27 years ago.

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“It’s no secret, I’m an emotional person,” McBride said, admitting he experienced some trepidation over whether this trait would make him a suitable police chief. He got advice to consider it “an outward display” of his commitment to the community, he said.

McBride acknowledged he was trying not to “lose it” as he scanned the audience — carefully avoiding eye contact with his family lest the tears begin to flow; ultimately, he did appear to well up at a few points and was unable to keep the occasional quiver out of his voice while he delivered his remarks.

The display of vulnerability might not be in line with the classic image of the stoic policeman of yesteryear, but McBride, in his speech and in comments to media after the ceremony, made it clear that policing has changed since he first put on the uniform in 1997.

He recalled early in his career having shifts where he and his fellow officers would wonder how to fill their time if they didn’t receive any calls. Police now face a more challenging crime environment that increasingly includes calls rooted in crystal meth and a growing presence of firearms, he said.

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Officers these days “do some incredibly hard work,” McBride said, calling policing both “a profession” and “a calling.”

“It’s something that you have to embrace; it’s something that your family needs to embrace and you need to be able to give it your all.”

While he was officially sworn in on Tuesday, McBride was first appointed chief about a month ago.

Three of the Saskatoon Police Service’s most senior staff have recently departed, making 2024 in some ways what McBride called “a year of stabilization.”

He singled out health and wellness as an early priority of his term, saying he spent a significant portion of the last month meeting with staff and assessing “where we are as an organization, and where we need to go” to support officers facing increasingly stressful conditions.

“Our commitment by the end of the year is to have a really well-established, robust mental health strategy,” he said.

That commitment comes at a time when police across Canada are increasingly reporting high levels of mental health-related concerns stemming from their work.

A 2018 report from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health noted Canadian police officers are “disproportionately affected by mental illness,” with almost 37 per cent of urban and provincial officers reporting symptoms of mental illness compared to about 10 per cent in the general population.

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The report cited a study of two Canadian urban police departments that found 52 per cent of officers reported moderate to severe stress, 88 per cent reported moderate to severe anxiety and 87 per cent reported moderate to severe depression.

The study also found 29 per cent were in the clinical diagnostic range for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, compared to a lifetime prevalence of PTSD for all Canadians of about nine per cent.

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