'Bearded Cop' confronts mental health stigma among Ottawa police

'Bearded Cop' confronts mental health stigma among Ottawa police

For years, Const. Jon Hall thought having flashbacks involving dead bodies was normal.

The Ottawa police officer often woke at night, screaming from violent nightmares. By day, he suffered panic episodes so severe he thought he was having a heart attack.

Hall always thought it was just part of his job. Then one day a colleague confided that he was suffering from PTSD.

"Honestly, it was one of the most awkward conversations I've had with him. Those first five minutes, I didn't know how to react," said Hall.

"It scared me a lot, because I was fearful for [him] — he was seeking treatment — but when he was talking, describing his symptoms, it was like he was describing me. He's never been to my house. He doesn't know me on a personal level, just on a work level. Yet there he was describing everything I was going through, everything I was feeling at home."

At home, Hall often found himself raising his voice at his wife and two small children. He felt both impatient and lethargic, and wore noise-cancelling earmuffs in the house so he wouldn't hear loud noises that may trigger him.

Diagnosed with PTSD, depression

Hall decided to seek help, and was diagnosed with PTSD and depression last year. That conversation he had with his police colleague prompted him to assess his own mental health, and he believes more first responders need to do the same.

He created an alter ego called The Bearded Cop, which he uses to blog and tweet about mental health and how it factors into his day-to-day routine doing traffic enforcement.

"It's therapeutic for me.... It forces me to self assess, it forces me to think about what I'm going to write down and really get in touch with my feelings and those symptoms," said Hall.

"This is my way of breaking down that stigma. I'm just one person and I don't represent all police officers, but if it can get a conversation going here and there, hey."

Challenging police culture

Hall's Twitter posts are a colourful mix of traffic safety tips, light-hearted photos of him and his colleagues on the job, and funny and popular memes that he often ties to traffic enforcement.

His traffic posts are interspersed with links to Hall's more serious blog posts about how he copes with PTSD and depression as an 11-year veteran of the Ottawa Police Service.

His goal is to challenge the stigma surrounding mental illness that still exists within the ranks.

"That culture — I was part of it. Using that negative language such as 'snap leave' is stuff I've said in the past as well," said Hall, referring to the pejorative term used by some officers for mental health leave.

"And that's one of the biggest challenges with culture. It's not something that comes necessarily from management or the executive. It's something that we all participate [in], we all perpetuate in our everyday language, from constables to civilians to anybody in the workplace."

Hall estimates he'll be in treatment for the rest of his life for his mental illness. He also does yoga regularly to keep his body and mind fit.

He acknowledges his ongoing struggle in his blog, and that's reflected by this Bearded Cop proverb found on the front page:

"By sharing myself to the world, I hope to rediscover parts of myself that have been lost or forgotten over time."