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U of R’s Nick Carleton focused on protecting the mental health of public safety personnel

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

By Greg Basky for SHRF


The seed for what would eventually become the focus of Nick Carleton’s research career was planted early. Carleton, this year’s recipient of the SHRF Mid-Career Award, was six years old, riding home in the car with his mother – pregnant at the time with his younger brother – when a teenage drunk driver blasted through an intersection and broadsided them, wrapping the family’s vehicle around a light post.


While he only remembers bits and pieces from that night, one thing that clearly stands out for Carleton is the person who was first on the scene – an off-duty police officer walking home from work. He was there immediately and did all he could to help until rescue personnel arrived. “Despite having just finished a full shift, he also came with us to the hospital. And then he would’ve eventually gone home. And then he would’ve got up the next day, put on his uniform, and gone back to work. And so did the firefighters, paramedics, and dispatchers. For our family, this was a huge event in our lives. For them, it was just another Tuesday.”


 

SHRF presents its Mid-Career Award annually to a researcher active in this province who has held an academic appointment for between five and 15 years. It recognizes the contributions their research has made to the knowledge base in a particular field, their work to develop others and the health research infrastructure in Saskatchewan, and the impact they’re having on health and health care.

Photo: University of Regina Photography

Carleton went on to study public safety personnel (PSP) who responded in 9/11, and worked with veterans seeking help dealing with operational stress injuries at a Calgary clinic set up by the Canadian Armed Forces. He finally locked in on what has become his research focus, when he got a series of calls in 2016 from several PSP leaders who wanted to know more about the mental health risks their members face and how they could better protect them. He tasked some of his graduate students with scouring the literature. They found a “shocking dearth” of information on the topic, both nationally and internationally.


Since then, Dr. Carleton has worked tirelessly to ensure that public safety personnel are receiving the mental health support they need. And his research is helping inform public safety policy here in Canada and abroad. He has published extensively in the area, and is currently leading a pair of novel projects – a longitudinal study of operational stress injuries for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (which has received CIHR funding to test MH supports developed for RCMP officers with other public safety personnel in Saskatchewan), and PSPNET, an internet-delivered, cognitive behaviour therapy program for PSP, on which he serves as co-principal investigator for the principal investigator, Dr. Heather Hadjistavropoulos


Carleton was a founding member of – and continues to serve as scientific director for – the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment (CIPSRT), which has a federal mandate to connect national public safety researchers, researchers, and policy makers to move evidence into action, to protect the mental health of PSP. His research has been supported by more than $60 million in provincial and federal research grants and contracts.


Dr. Gord Asmundson (PhD), a professor in University of Regina’s Department of Psychology, was Carleton’s first academic supervisor. Now a colleague of Carleton’s at the U of R, he says Nick’s biggest contribution has been in boosting our collective understanding of the mental health impacts of the work done by public safety personnel – and how to equip them with tools to stay healthy mentally despite regularly being exposed to psychologically traumatic events in the line of duty. “He’s really helped shape the Canadian landscape around both our understanding of and our intervention to counter the mental health challenges that public safety personnel face.”


While we have for some time recognized the mental health toll exacted by military service, society has been slow to see that public safety personnel face a similar threat to their psyche. “We take our military personnel from a safe space here at home and deploy them to a very unsafe space somewhere else, but then we bring them back home to a safe space,” says Carleton. “But who’s keeping safe the places where they and their families live and work and play?”


Carleton says we’ve known since the end of World War II that you can’t deploy military personnel to a high stress zone for more than 240 days without them coming back with mental health challenges. “But for our police, our paramedics, our firefighters, we deploy them into what is – for them – an unsafe, high stress zone, and we leave them and their families there for 25 years.”


Building Capacity

Carleton is deeply committed to nurturing the next generation of researchers. He’s currently supervising dozens of postdoctoral, undergraduate, and graduate trainees studying mental health, PTSD, and clinical psychology. Evan Bray, Chief of Police with Regina Police Service, has worked with Carleton on a variety of research projects over the years. He says Carleton has done a tremendous job enlisting and supporting other researchers. “He's building a mini army of people that are interested in this work,” says Bray. “It's that old saying: ‘Nothing great is ever achieved without enthusiasm.’ He has lit the torches of so many people now that this work can't help but just continually improve and move forward.”


Photo: University of Regina Photography


Making a difference in health and healthcare

Bray says Dr. Carleton’s work is truly making a difference in the mental health of Saskatchewan PSP. “The Regina Police Service, the RCMP, paramedics in this province, not only have a front seat to it, but we are benefiting because he’s using all of us in his research projects,” says Bray. Another big plus that comes from Carleton using every opportunity to speak to the importance of recognizing and attending to the mental health of PSP is that it’s helping reduce stigma. “We know that with mental health, it’s one thing to be able to identify and treat it,” says Bray. “But probably the more important thing is for the person who needs help to recognize that and be comfortable coming forward.”


 

Asmundson still remembers the first time he met Carleton, then a “wet behind the ears, brash young undergraduate student” who wandered into his office one day and announced that Gord was going to supervise him and his research career. “I said ‘Oh really?’” But then I sat down with him, heard him out, and realized ‘yeah, I really should give him a chance,’” recalls Asmundson with a chuckle.


“Nick is somebody who sees an opportunity, a situation, a problem. He walks in and says “Here’s how it's going to be. We’re going to work together and solve this.’ And then he goes out and does the hard work to make it happen. He’s repeated that pattern over and over again – whether it’s with public safety personnel, or chiefs of police or the people who run the RCMP. He knows what he wants to do, what’s required to move things forward, and he makes it happen.”


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