PTSD a treatable injury, says recovering Saskatchewan Mountie

For those who care

A Saskatchewan Mountie, who lives with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), wants other first responders to see it is an injury, not a death sentence.

Const. Ariane Muirhead is organizing a charity golf event this Saturday in Fort Qu’Appelle to raise awareness and money for first responders struggling with PTSD.

She was diagnosed with the illness in 2010, after responding to a particularly traumatic incident.

“I would describe it for myself almost like having a monster living inside your head,” Muirhead told CBC Morning Editionhost Stefani Langenegger.

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Const. Ariane Muirhead (right), with her father Robert Muirhead (left), joined the RCMP in 2009. (Ariane Muirhead)

“Sort of a monster inside there telling you you’re weak and pathetic, and you’re supposed to be out helping the public and you’re at home being paid to do nothing.”

The symptoms started in late 2012 with flashbacks, trouble sleeping and anger. That eventually led to alcohol and prescription morphine abuse.

“It got to a point where there were a few occasions where I was ready to end my life,” said Muirhead.

Her family, friends and colleagues noticed something was wrong before she did.

“I remember my mom saying, ‘Who are you? You’re not the same person you were a few years ago.'”

Finally, she approached the RCMP’s employee assistance program and described the guilt and grief she was experiencing over the incident to a member.

He referred her to a psychologist who diagnosed Muirhead with PTSD.

At first she was embarrassed to tell her supervisor and colleagues because of the stigma connected to mental illness, but she realized it was important that they knew.

Eventually, with help, Muirhead was able to get better.

“I will always have PTSD, but I now have the knowledge and the skills to be able to deal with a trigger — to be able to deal with something that causes some of those emotions and know that it’s okay.”

Raising awareness for first responders living with PTSD

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Const. Ariane Muirhead is working to spread awareness about PTSD and the impact it has on first responders. (RCMP)

Now she works to raise public awareness about the illness and the supports that are available to those living with it.

“I think we need people to understand — the public and the PTSD organizations — we need to let them know that this is something that can happen, that it is okay, that it is an injury, that you’re no different then someone who has been stabbed or hit by a car.”

She has organized a First Responder PTSD Awareness’ charity golf tournament at Echo Ridge golf course this Saturday.

Representatives of the military, navy, RCMP, EMS and the Fort Qu’Appelle fire department who have PTSD will be there to speak about their experiences.

Members of the public, who are not golfing, are also invited to attend the event and join in on the conversation.

“The 100 per cent goal? [I] do not want to see anymore first responders lose their lives to this illness— an injury that is very treatable.”

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First Responder walk for PTSD, Cst. Ariane Muirhead’s family walks in support of her.

From the First Responder walk for PTSD in Halifax, Cst. Ariane Muirhead’s family walks in support of her.

Bobbie-Lynn Muirhead was there to show her support of her sister, who is an RCMP officer.

“Her whole life (she) wanted to be an RCMP officer. She had some PTSD-related issues and she’s still with the force so we’re here in support of her” she said.

Muirhead said she hopes the Halifax community recognizes how serious the condition is.

“It’s a real thing. These people are putting their lives on the line every day and it does affect them“She said.

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Concern for RCMP during Tisdale tragedy

You are individuals who have chosen to follow your calling and do the (most thankless) job that few of us could handle for single day.

As you walk through the challenges of coping with this close to home and very disturbing crime, as well as all the other evil and depraved things you have witnessed during your career, it is my prayer that you find the strength to show your “weakness”, grief, shock, trauma, and coping defences- to those who can guide you and walk with you through it. That you will be able to see that there remains some good in the world, even though you tend to witness the bad side more than most of us. I pray that you will encouraged by your community who respects your position of authority while realizing that your uniforms and badges do not effectively act as armour or block out the human emotions and responses that inevitable during this difficult time. May you be encouraged by knowing that you are supported, thought of and prayed for. We are thankful for you.

With much gratitude, teary eyes, and many prayers,

Stephanie Getachew

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Society’s turn to help first responders

Imagine being a person who people call on the worst day of their lives.

Imagine being that police officer or firefighter who is first on the scene after a sports car plows into a tractor-trailer. Everyone – from passers-by who need help getting around the wreckage to the person whose life is ebbing away as the Jaws of Life tool pries twisted steel – expects the first responders to work miracles. Most times they do. Sometimes, though, they can’t, and those become among the worst days of the first responders’ lives, too.

Imagine what it’s like for a town cop to respond to a neighbor’s house after the neighbors’ son has hanged himself in his closet or the daughter has overdosed in her parents’ bathroom. After performing first aid they know won’t work, they stay to administer a different kind of first aid to the ones left behind.

Imagine returning year after year to homes where abusers continue to strike and victims remain pawns in a justice system that seldom delivers justice. On your next overtime shift, sip from a welcome cup of coffee and then imagine dropping it as an alarm rings. You gear up, take off and prepare to walk into a burning building that contains god knows what. Gasoline stored in the basement? Fireworks in the bedroom? A child hiding under a bed? And what happens when you can’t reach that child?

Being a first responder means always expecting the unexpected. One moment can be spent joking with colleagues, sharing the black humor that is one of the few coping mechanisms police and firefighters have, and the next moment being shot at or having a floor collapse beneath your feet. It means that any day could be your last.

Be it a metropolitan area or a small town, the public doesn’t have a true sense of the scope of a first responder’s duties. It’s never just another day at the office.

Lives depend on their training and bravery, on their willingness to put the public good ahead of their own. Police and firefighters always answer the call for help, but who helps them?

There are few resources for first responders dealing with the stresses of their jobs, and that there is no system-wide program. Those stresses don’t remain at the workplace; they follow the first responders home, where personal relationships can be affected.

We shouldn’t wait until it’s a crisis, until there’s another suicide. We must do more for those police officers and firefighters who need help coping with the stresses of their jobs.

After all, first responders are always there for us when we need them. We need to be there for them, too.

OUR OPINION: Society’s turn to help first responders 

First responders struggle with PTSD

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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.”

From the Edmontonsun.com

RCMP has seen 31 officer suicides since 2006. Suicide tracking part of police mental health strategy

Canadian Occupational Health and Safety News — In the wake of four suicides among RCMP ranks and retirees so far this year — including the recent death of 51-year-old Ken Barker, who investigated a Greyhound bus beheading in Manitoba in 2008 — the organization has announced that it has begun tracking officer suicides.

The initiative is part of the force’s mental health strategy, launched on April 1. The RCMP, with the help of Great-West Life, its group life insurance provider, has counted a total of 31 serving or retired members who have taken their own lives since 2006.

“We have mandated every divisional occupational health office to look into all cases of suicide, to make sure that we have done everything that we could,” said Gilles Moreau, the RCMP’s assistant commissioner and main advocate for mental health issues.

The initiative is partly a response to frequent requests for statistics regarding suicides, Moreau explained. “With everything that is being written about post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health issues within the RCMP, but also within the Canadian Forces, within Canadian society as well, we felt it important to look at the rates of suicides within the organization.”

Great-West Life’s data provided the quantity of the suicides but not the causes. While post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was believed to be a frequent cause, other mental health issues such as depression and anxiety were likely contributors as well, according to Moreau.

Lori Wilson, founder of grassroots organization Families of the RCMP for PTSD Awareness, applauded the RCMP’s efforts. “Any acknowledgement of what is going on is a step in the right direction,” she said.

Wilson established the organization last year after her husband, a former RCMP officer, struggled to find proper care for his own PTSD. After two-and-a-half years of unsuccessful treatment, Wilson’s husband was finally referred to an occupational stress injury clinic. Wilson then realized that more RCMP members and their families needed information on the condition.

Before the RCMP’s recent initiative, Wilson had written recommendations to the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs regarding PTSD within the force. Her recommendations dealt with prevention, maintenance, post-incident care and post-diagnosis care, calling for open acknowledgement of the condition and an end to stigma against it.

“The culture of the RCMP is mythological, almost,” Wilson said, referring to the force’s reputation for strength and heroism. “There’s that whole mentality, almost that you’re superhuman, and I think to lose that image is very hard for the RCMP. And that image doesn’t work when you’re doing policing today.”

Moreau agreed that the stigma was largely a cultural issue. “We’re driven to help others,” he said of police officers. “Sometimes, we’re our own worst enemy, not being able to help ourselves. And that’s just the nature of the job, having to be strong and having to be the one that’s leading when you’re getting to an accident scene.”

Another possible reason that it has taken so long for the RCMP to deal with this problem, Wilson suggested, is the size of its force. “It’s a huge organization, and any large organization is hard to change.”

Wilson reiterated her past recommendations that the RCMP needed to openly acknowledge the risks of PTSD in a healing, compassionate way, promoting resiliency and healthy coping mechanisms.

“It needs to become part of the norm,” she said. “They need to go back and retrain their supervisors that the human body and mind are still human, even if you’re a police officer.”

Moreau noted that the RCMP was actively promoting awareness of mental health issues in the police sector. “Managers, but also colleagues, are aware of the issues that are linked to mental illness and the importance of getting treatment,” he said. “That’s the big piece of the education that we are doing this year.”

From: CANADA’S OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH & SAFETY MAGAZINE

RCMP tracks 31 suicides over 8 years as stress-related illnesses take toll on force

Retired Mountie Ken Barker, seen with police dog Axa, took his own life after suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Retired Mountie Ken Barker, seen with police dog Axa, took his own life after suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

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.”

Dquan@Postmedia.com

Twitter.com/dougquan

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Grim Toll

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:

July 2014

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.”

June 2014

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.

May 2014

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.

July 2013

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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From o.canada.com July 18, 2014