PTSD extends beyond military vets, mental health conference told
OTTAWA — Twenty seven years after he shot and killed an armed robbery suspect and spiralled to the verge of suicide, retired Ottawa police officer Syd Gravel says not enough has changed when it comes to police and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Gravel’s experience led him to help create Robin’s Blue Circle within the Ottawa police force, a peer support group for officers who had been shot or had shot others and needed help. The group, which still exists, was named after Ottawa police officer Robin Easey, who was shot at Bayshore Shopping Centre in 1984.
But Gravel, who has written books on the subject, says a culture of denial still prevents many police officers from getting the help they need for operational stress injuries, or even recognizing they need help. While some police agencies address the issue, others, he said, don’t even want to talk about it. There is no protocol across police forces, he said, nor is there even accurate data about how many officer suffer from operational stress injuries and how many have resulted in suicide.
Gravel says he has heard that between 10 and 24 per cent of police officers have PTSD but does not know how accurate those figures are. In 2012, Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin slammed the Ontario Provincial Police for lack of action on PTSD.
Gravel was one of the speakers Wednesday at a national conference on depression and mental illness and, like many, he emphasized how much work is still needed to improve treatment and help to better the lives of people who suffer from mental illness.
Much of the discussion of post traumatic stress disorder in Canada has been focused on the military, especially in light of recent suicides — five this year — by current and former members of the Canadian military. But several speakers at the Canadian Depression Research and Intervention Network conference said PTSD in the military is just the tip of the iceberg. Police and other first responders, they said, are also particularly vulnerable, and so are many other Canadians.
Saying “PTSD knows no boundaries,” Gravel said the military, police and other first responders should work together to share information and to do a better job of understanding the issue.
Gravel was among a group of people with first-hand experience who spoke at the conference, the first one of its kind, which brings together researchers with those who have “lived experience” with PTSD, depression, suicide and other mental illness.
The two-day conference was opened by Sharon Johnston, wife of Governor-General David Johnston who worked as a psychiatric occupational therapist, and now works to promote mental health, as well as Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, who has talked about her own experience with postpartum depression in an effort to combat stigma surrounding mental health.
But organizers and panellists at the conference said stigma still remains. Not only does it get in the way of people seeking help, but it has also slowed progress in fighting various forms of mental illness.
Dr. Zul Merali, president and chief executive of the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research and co-chair of the Canadian Depression Research and Intervention Network, said he is beginning to see some change as people become more comfortable talking about mental illness.
BY ELIZABETH PAYNE, OTTAWA CITIZEN MARCH 27, 2014