First responders struggle with PTSD

In July 2004, Ron Campbell was reading the newspaper at his kitchen table when he came across an article about a fiery collision involving a Sherwood Park truck driver near Golden, B.C.

The man’s legs were pinned in the vehicle, which burst into blames. Another driver came to the rescue, but it was no use, the trucker burned to death.

When Campbell’s wife walked into the kitchen and said something to him, he didn’t respond. That’s when she noticed tears streaming down his face.

“She asked what was wrong and I told her this story,” said Campbell, a staff sergeant with the RCMP in Edmonton, who responded to the same kind of call 22 years ago as a young constable.

“I can still hear him screaming. I can remember the smells. I can remember to this day visually the people that were there.”

Five months before he broke down reading that haunting story, Campbell watched a mentally ill gunman kill RCMP dog handler Cpl. Jim Galloway following a six-hour standoff in Spruce Grove. Galloway had been a friend of Campbell’s for 19 years. The loss was heartbreaking.

Campbell’s wife knew he was struggling with Galloway’s death and asked if he would get help after that day in the kitchen. Three months later, he was approached by former policing partner, asking how he was doing.

At that time, Campbell was working in the RCMP major crimes unit, averaging 23 homicides a year and spending 120 days away from home. It was a stressful environment, he recalls, for which he blamed his change in demeanour. Deep down Campbell knew something was wrong, but he was too scared to admit it to anybody.

“I thought oh crap I’m busted. If she knows, everyone else knows so what’s going to happen?” he said. “I thought I was going to lose my job. That’s still the mentality. That’s one of the big impediments to our people or any other police service — members stepping forward and saying I need help because they are so afraid of being stigmatized, ostracized and isolated.”

Three weeks later, Campbell did one of the most frightening things of his career – he reached out for help. He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), along with a major depressive disorder. Three months into therapy, however, Campbell’s therapist stepped away from practice and he didn’t see anybody for nine months.

The work in the major crimes unit remained busy and the death toll kept mounting. Campbell began experiencing feelings of inadequacy, guilt, embarrassment and anger. He didn’t know where it was coming from and began distancing himself from personal relationships.

“I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I was trying to alienate my wife, I was trying to get her to leave me, I was trying to get her to a place where she would just hate me so when I killed myself she wouldn’t care,” he said, adding he didn’t want to unload on her since she had enough to worry about every time he walked out the door.

Working as a crisis negotiator, Campbell admits there were times he would walk out from behind cover, hoping somebody would take a shot.

“I just didn’t care. The pain is so intense, the helplessness is so intense that the only way for us to escape that is death.”

The suicidal thoughts lasted for at least 18 months. Campbell had a plan to make his death look like an accident by driving at top speeds into an abutment on the 17th Street overpass along Yellowhead Trail. One night he went there to look at the location, but drove home after an Edmonton city police officer stopped and questioned what he was doing.

Realizing something was terribly wrong, Campbell’s family eventually held an intervention and guided him to a trauma specialist — a woman he says saved his life.

Now working in communications at RCMP K-Division, the 56-year-old attends conferences across North America, speaking about his experience with PTSD. Doing talks about the subject is some of the most empowering work he’s ever done. Looking back at the person he was five years ago leaves him flabbergasted.

“I’m at a place of peace now with who I am. I never thought this day would come where I could be in this position. I’m so grateful. I can leave the RCMP with a peace of mind and not feel like I lost a part of me,” said Campbell, who has no regrets about his 34 years of policing because the good far outweighs the bad.

“Depression I’ll never escape. I live with a disorder, but it will not ruin me, it will not control my life anymore. I will control it. I refuse to be a victim.”

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