4. Stigma and cop culture

Every person we spoke to for this case study noted that stigma plays a role in hindering an open discussion of suicide, in the media and general public alike. Sociologists define stigma as “an ‘attribute that is deeply discrediting’ and that reduces the bearer ‘from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one’” [1].

Mental illness is a highly stigmatized aspect of health. The stigma attached to mental illness works to perpetuate the myth that mental illness is something to be ashamed of: that the ill person is inferior, should be removed from the public sphere and ostracized.

Suicide is often, though not always, linked to mental health. In 2005, suicide was still a taboo topic and the negative stereotypes associated with it were abundant. Then as now, misguided attitudes toward suicide were pervasive in police forces. An officer harbouring suicidal thoughts might not know where to turn.

“Stigma is a huge issue,” says De Caire, the Hamilton police chief. “‘Who do you tell? And the answer [is], ‘Well, nobody.’ It’s a stigma issue. And we’ve got to get over that.”

According to De Caire, the stigma attached to suicide is not specific to police culture. Rather, it exists everywhere and lots of people are afraid to talk about it.

Clairmont, who has devoted much of her decades-long career to reporting on stories involving police, thinks differently. “We think there’s stigma in the world at large about mental health issues. The stigma within a police service is a thousand times greater than that.”

Clairmont points out that for a police officer, a career hangs in the balance: an episode of mental illness can throw a wrench into one’s future on the force. What’s more, long-standing conceits of the ideal police officer are deeply entrenched in cop culture, making it that much harder for an officer to admit he’s suffering.

Listen to Susan Clairmont describe her understanding of stigma as it relates to cop culture:

Cop culture, notoriously driven by machismo and conservative values, exalts the image of a strong and impenetrable fighter of crime and server of justice. Within that culture, mental illness is often associated with weakness and vulnerability. To be sure, these views are outdated and untrue. Still, even today, frank conversations about mental health and suicide can be stressful and seemingly shameful.

The media is guilty of spreading and reinforcing stigma. Robbins says journalism tends to mirror the sentiments of the public, and for this reason, it lags a step or two behind contemporary discourses on sensitive topics like suicide.

“I think we reflected for many years the prejudice and stigma that was around suicide because that’s what Canadian society felt,” says Robbins. “As a young man when I was growing up, I lost a number of friends to suicide. It was considered a shameful thing. Why that was, it seems inexplicable to me. But that is sort of the history of that piece. I think the media sort of inherited that.”

It remains up for debate whether reporting on suicide undercuts the stigma or reinforces it.

Watch Esther Enkin talk about suicide in the context of police culture: 

Next: Unanswered questions


[1] Link, Bruce G., and Jo C. Phelan. “Conceptualizing Stigma.” Annual Review of Sociology 27 (2007): 363-85. Annual Reviews. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.