Under fire for not doing enough to respond to stress-related illness, the RCMP has begun to track the number of suicides within its ranks, and the initial tally is staggering.
Officials disclosed to Postmedia News Friday that they are aware of at least 31 serving or retired members who have committed suicide since 2006. The revelation came as a memorial service was held for Ken Barker, a recently retired corporal and dog handler in Manitoba, who took his life last weekend.
Each division has been asked to pull the occupational health records of each of those members to see what can be learned from them, Assistant Commissioner Gilles Moreau said in an interview. It’s part of a broader strategy to reduce stigma surrounding post-traumatic stress disorder and to make members feel more comfortable getting help.
“Definitely it’s moving forward. Enough of this,” said Moreau, who acknowledged that he contemplated suicide earlier in his career. “We need to look at what we have not been doing in the past. What do we need to do differently to address this very important issue?”
Barker, 51, cut the profile of an upbeat and gregarious guy, but in recent years he just wasn’t the same, said friend Steve Walker, a former Mountie. Years of responding to terrible crime scenes — including the grisly beheading of a Greyhound bus passenger — had taken their toll.
“In a testosterone-driven environment, there’s an expectation they’re infallible,” Walker said. “Over the years, it takes a wear and tear. … It’s cumulative and corrosive.”
Walker said it was not uncommon in the past for members struggling with PTSD to get pushed aside. If it wasn’t told in their face, it was strongly implied that they should just “suck it up, buttercup.”
The suicides of Barker and other Mounties in recent months — Postmedia News confirmed at least four in the past year — have prompted louder calls for the force to provide better early detection and support for members. One vocal critic is Jeff Morley, a 23-year member who left the force last year to become a full-time psychologist.
“The RCMP’s new mental health strategy focuses on education and stigma reduction. Sounds great, but there’s still no specific strategy for that, and more importantly, no budget attached to it,” Morley said.
Members are essentially at the mercy of community resources, which vary greatly across the country, Morley said. Further, if a member visits a psychologist more than six times in a year, the psychologist is obligated to disclose to the RCMP the reasons why. This causes many members to avoid further counselling because they don’t want to disclose their mental health problems to their employer.
Moreau, the RCMP’s assistant chief human resources officer, said the force asks psychologists to provide reports on members requiring more than six visits so that it can determine if it’s safe for them to remain on the frontlines.
“We have a responsibility to know that they’re healthy. It’d be irresponsible of us to send someone (to a psychologist) 25 times and not know anything about it,” Moreau said. “We carry guns.”
Moreau said members have access to in-house psychologists, as well as help in the community, including the same operational stress injury (OSI) clinics used by Canadian Armed Forces members and military veterans. While members may have been shunned in the past for seeking help, the goal today is to get them the help they need so they can return to their duties, Moreau said.
“We’re changing the mindset of managers,” he said. That was evidenced last month, he said, by the support that was provided to members in the wake of the fatal shooting of three officers in Moncton.
PTSD can develop from a single traumatic event or develop over time from a series of smaller stressors, such as repeated exposure to family violence or car accidents, experts say. Those who’ve experienced it say it’s difficult for the body to relax and it is not uncommon for sufferers to withdraw from their families and to turn to alcohol or drugs to cope.
“PTSD comes home and lives with you. It’s not just the person. It affects the whole family dynamic, all the relationships,” said Lori Wilson, founder of the Facebook support group Families of the RCMP for PTSD Awareness.
Wilson said she and her Mountie-husband were “blindsided” by PTSD a few years ago. “We were both always prepared for a physical injury, but there had not been any mention or preparation for mental injury.”
After going through several therapists, Wilson’s husband was able to get the help he needed. Now, she is pushing for the creation of a “travelling road show” of PTSD survivors and their spouses and the development of a national peer-support network so that Mounties struggling with PTSD don’t feel alone.
In a post on Wilson’s blog site, behindtheredserge.ca, Wilson’s husband wrote that he always thought PTSD was something that only combat soldiers came home with.
“No one wants PTSD, they don’t fake it, they weren’t prepared for it and support is essential. … With support and tenacity, PTSD isn’t a life sentence and you can come out of it better equipped to deal with whatever life throws at you.”
The RCMP confirmed Friday that at least 31 serving and retired Mounties have taken their lives since 2006. At least four suicides occurred within the past year:
Ken Barker, 51, was a retired corporal and dog handler in Manitoba. He was among the first officers on the scene of the beheading of a Greyhound bus passenger in 2008 on the Trans Canada highway near Portage La Prairie. Barker “suffered a long battle” with PTSD, according to his obituary. Many tried to reach out to him but he would “withdraw and isolate himself.”
Michel Page,55, was a retired staff sergeant in New Brunswick. After 28 years of service, he began a second career as an instructor at the New Brunswick Community College in Dieppe. Page was diagnosed with PTSD about a decade ago, said his girlfriend, Sylvie Morin. The recent fatal shootings of three officers in Moncton, plus being called to testify in a 12-year-old case, were too much for Page to handle, she said. It is critical that spouses or partners be included in treatment plans because PTSD sufferers often put up a mask and only their loved ones truly know what is going on, Morin said. Wait times for treatment are often too long, she added.
Cpl. Neil Ogurian, 56, was a member of the force’s protective security detail in B.C. Ogurian’s nephew, Brad Ogurian, said family in Alberta were shocked by the news of his suicide.
Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre, 55, was found hanging in his home in Abbotsford, B.C. A former media spokesman, Lemaitre had been accused of misleading the public about details of the Taser-related death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver airport in 2007, but an inquiry later determined that he had just relayed information that had been given to him by his superiors. His family says they are anxiously awaiting the release of a special B.C. coroner’s report into his death.
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