Trauma, Stigma & Betrayal in the RCMP:
An Underground History
Staff Sergeant Jeff Morley, Ph.D.
Board Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress
American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress
“The ordinary response to atrocities is to ban them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable. Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried…”
“Traumatic events call in to question basic human relationships. They breach the attachments of family, friendship, love, and community. They shatter the construction of self that is formed and sustained in relation to others. They undermine the belief systems that give meaning to human experience. They violate the victim’s faith in a natural or divine order and cast the victim into in to a state of existential crisis”.
Judith Lewis Herman
Trauma & Recovery
The RCMP, as most police departments do, seeks to recruit and hire the best and brightest minds it can attract in Canada. Police officers are put through a rigorous hiring process which includes aptitude and ability test, physical tests, medical tests, psychological tests, polygraph testing, and detailed background investigations. Arguably, new police officers are pretty healthy and “squeaky clean” when hired.
We know that not all will stay that way.
Some will be physically injured or killed on the job.
Some will suffer significant psychological distress.
We ask these officers to put themselves in harm’s way every day on the job. We expose them to horrific violence, unimaginable atrocities, and to all forms of suffering and evil that humans can inflict on one another. Violent attacks, sexual assaults, gang rapes, torture and rape of children, infants, and even animals. We may ask them to pick up the bodies of their dead friends and colleagues. We ask them to tell parents their child has been killed. We ask them to deal with babies who are mutilated, burned and killed – or left alive and facing unspeakable suffering with unfixable wounds, and permanent scars. Our officers themselves are shot at, punched, kicked, spat on, attacked, and at risk in countless ways from pursuits to toxic chemicals and natural disasters.
When officers suffer symptoms after exposure to such events, and often after many years of repeated and countless exposure to such atrocities, is it due to some flaw in their character? Are they malingering? Faking? Taking advantage of the sick leave system or psychological services plan?
They are not.
In fact, we might need to be more concerned if an officer did not suffer any symptoms and could face such horrors and remained unmoved and unaffected.
What does the research say about how police work affects officers ?:
Cops are at greater risk for Depression (Police 21%, Population 4%) (Gershon et al 2009)
11% of police report suicidal thoughts as a result of the job (Marshall, 2003)
7-9% of police suffer PTSD (Marmar et al, 2006)
33% suffer partial PTSD (Gershon et al , 2009)
74% of police have recurring memories of police incident (Marshall, 2003)
62% have recurring images (Marshall, 2003)
54% actively avoid reminders of an incident (Marshall, 2003)
54% of police reports often feeling physically, emotionally, or spiritually depleted
(Gershon et al, 2009)
82% believe the world is unsafe (Marshall, 2003)
88% developed new prejudices on the job (Marshall, 2003)
53% report a change in spiritual beliefs after entering the profession (Marshall, 2003)
88% report work affecting their family (Esposito, 1989)
92% of police no longer trust others (Marshall, 2003)
John Violanti (2003, 2006) a lead police researcher has found police work has harmful effects on:
He also noted police have increased rates of:
Somatic complaints Domestic Violence Marital Discord
Alcohol abuse (25%) Absenteeism
Much of the above research is dated. None is from Canada.
What are the rates of psychological distress in RCMP employees?
We don’t know.
No research is being done.
Health records systems are outdated and inadequate to provide accurate statistics. Even these records would not account for those who suffer in silence, those who are afraid to speak up, or those who seek out care and pay for it privately so the RCMP does not know they are seeking help.
Why doesn’t the RCMP research this issue to determine the extent of the problem?
Recently the new Commissioner stated publicly there is no systemic issue. How does he know? What did he base these comments on? Who is giving him this information? What test is used to determine the benchmark which would constitute a systemic problem? Is the Commissioner the person best able to make this determination?
One might wonder if he refuses to fund the research because he does not want to know the answers he may find. Leadership cannot be provided on multi-million dollar issues by sticking one’s head in the sand.
Proposals for research on these issues have been made and patently rejected by the RCMP executive.
Government is not likely to challenge him on this, as they too do not want to know the answers, in fear of financial implications. Minister Toews recently commented he had no evidence any changes would negatively affect front line RCMP officers. How can the evidence be obtained when the RCMP and government refuse to fund research to determine the extent of the problem? Convenient for the Commissioner and the Minister. Not so convenient for the officers who are suffering, stigmatized, and lacking a voice.
Stigma around PTSD in the RCMP is also real and powerful. There is no programming in place to address it.
“The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma. People who have survived atrocities often tell their stories in a highly emotional, contradictory, and fragmented manner which undermines their credibility, and thereby serves the twin imperatives of truth-telling and secrecy. When the truth is finally recognized, survivors can begin their recovery. But far too often secrecy prevails, and the story of the traumatic event surfaces not as a verbal narrative but as a symptom.”
Traumatic events hold a powerful charge in the human psyche. Trauma wreaks havoc on victims, and society alike. Trauma loves secrecy and silence. People don’t want to talk about what they have been through – it’s painful to speak about, and the shame of being a victim can feel overwhelming – especially for cops. Society affirms victims’ silence as we don’t want to hear about the inhumanity and atrocities that occur in our midst, and that we inflict on one another. We do not want to be confronted by victims that may demand action, and care. We do not want to confront our own vulnerability in the world. The illusion that we are all safe and nothing bad could happen to us is comforting. Consciously or unconsciously we blame the victim at some level, though we can’t even admit to ourselves that we do this, even in subtle ways. We want to believe that people who develop symptoms like PTSD after a trauma are somehow weak, faking, malingering, or were predisposed. This too is comforting as we believe none of us is like that, thus we are immune from such suffering, and the stigma that goes with it. Trauma brings with it a fog of unconsciousness that keeps people suffering in silence, and keeps society protected from the victim’s pain.
“The knowledge of horrible events periodically intrudes into public awareness but is rarely retained for long. Denial , repression, and dissociation operate on a social as well as an individual level. The study of trauma has an underground history. Like traumatized people we have been cut off from the knowledge of our past”.
Police organizations too remain unconscious to the trauma employees face every day. There might be big consequences if they did not. Action might be required. It might cost money that is not in the budget. Horrific stories may need to be told and witnessed that might be incredibly hard to hear. A cop might cry, or rage. What would happen then? Cops aren’t supposed to do that. They are to be strong and remain unaffected by the work. They carry the hero archetype in our society’s psyche. We want to believe there are strong people out there who can do the work without being affected. Society certainly doesn’t want to see Superman or Superwoman become a victim. Then we all become unsafe and at risk. Cops need to believe we can do the work and stay healthy. If we didn’t believe this, who would seek out the job?
“Witnesses as well as victims are subject to the dialectic of trauma. It is difficult for an observer to remain clearheaded and calm, to see more than a few fragments of the picture at one time. It is even more difficult to find a language that conveys fully and persuasively what one has seen. Those who attempt to describe the atrocities that they have witnessed also risk their own credibility. To speak publicly about one’s knowledge of atrocities is to invite the stigma that attaches to victims”.
So the RCMP Commissioner, government, Canadian society, and even RCMP employees themselves collude to avoid speaking of the trauma and atrocities faced by our people. It is publicly declared “there is no systemic problem”, so programs are cut and we move on.
There is a problem though. One that everyone wants to remain unspoken.
The RCMP has hundreds of employees so disabled by PTSD that they cannot work.
Some may never police again and are discharged from the organization.
Many families are destroyed and devastated from the damage done to their loved one.
Many require therapy, medications, and on-going support.
Some members have killed themselves in their suffering and distress.
We don’t know the numbers of employees who may suffer deeply but manage to stay at work, and hide their symptoms, or manage their symptoms.
We don’t know how many leave the organization prematurely for other careers, where their decision was actually a result of trauma exposure.
We don’t know how many simply suffer in silence.
What does it take to constitute a systemic problem?
We do know the RCMP spends tens of millions of dollars a year on trauma and mental health issues – sick time, doctor and psychologist visits, medications, VAC pensions. No one can give an exact number but $60 million a year is a reasonable guess.
There is an unlimited budget. Costs are rising. The RCMP could spend close to a billion dollars in the next decade on these issues.
They won’t spend a few hundred thousand to conduct research to explore the problem with an eye to better prevention, screening, and early intervention. Research consistently shows money is way better spent on prevention, offering a far greater ROI. The RCMP does not see this and is cutting programs in this regard.
The RCMP requires an integrated Trauma Strategy for several reasons:
Legally organizations are required to provide healthy workplaces for employees, including psychologically healthy workplaces. There are known, serious psychological risks to police work. The RCMP is legally responsible to address these known risks, and provide programs to mitigate, prevent, screen, and care for employees. The effectiveness of these programs needs to be based on science and research as well as best practices that recognize the unique challenges to the psychological health of police employees. The programs offered to employees at Bell Canada or Revenue Canada may not be adequate to the unique needs of the RCMP.
Financially it is good business to invest in prevention, screening, and early intervention. Such dollars offer a far greater Return-on-Investment than treatment programs after employees are debilitated – though these programs are needed too. In fact police unique trauma treatment programs need to be designed, evaluated, and implemented to ensure treatment is effective, evidence-based and timely. Currently the RCMP offers no treatment for its suffering employees, but is simply at the mercy of whatever programs and services may or may not be available in local communities for employees. Given the numbers of suffering employees the RCMP has, the costs to the organization, and the absence of community options, the RCMP needs to have the vision and foresight to design and offer such programs to help its people heal.
Finally, to take such steps is simply the right thing to do. We hire the best and brightest we can find. They get damaged. The RCMP has a moral responsibility to care for its employees and keep them healthy, or return them to health when damaged. If the RCMP needs to trim its budget, member health is not the place to do it. Does the public want damaged and distressed officers out on the street protecting them?
Healthy Workplace and Trauma Strategies have been commissioned and written but ignored by RCMP management and the Commissioner.
In so doing the RCMP betrays it employees.
The irony is they do it believing it will cut costs, with no evidence to show it will. It may in fact backfire and cost them more.
The RCMP leaves itself open to increasing costs, lawsuits, and more employees suffering and not receiving the care they need. It is not good business, and it is unkind. It shows a lack of intelligence (literally – research not being done), willful blindness, and a shocking lack of compassion.
Hopefully our new Commissioner has the courage and vision to at the very least engage in meaningful discussion on these issues, and consult with relevant experts from within and outside the RCMP, before setting a direction.
Employees who speak out on such issues suffer often severe consequences, which helps keep the secret hidden, and officers suffering in silence while the RCMP betrays them.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada recently developed a national Mental Health Strategy. What would it take for the RCMP to do the same, and develop its own? The RCMP is the biggest police force in Canada. It needs to take the lead in conducting research, and designing new, creative, evidence-based programs to care for its employees psychological wellbeing while promoting resilience. Partnering with other police forces and universities across Canada to fund research, pilot and evaluate new programs, and develop and disseminate best practices makes good financial sense, it demonstrates being intelligence lead, and shows a commitment to care for the employees who put themselves on the front lines every day in service of Canada.