RCMP almost done review of program for Mounties to deal with traumatic stress

John Cotter
March 04, 2011
By John Cotter
Mar 02 2011 EDMONTON - As people prepare to light candles Thursday to remember the murder of four Mounties in Alberta, the RCMP is finishing its first review in decades of a program to help treat post-traumatic stress. Details on how many officers have sought help for anxiety related to the Mayerthorpe killings six years ago aren't available, but there are indications that what happened may have left lingering effects.

Mar 02 2011

EDMONTON - As people prepare to light candles Thursday to remember the murder of four Mounties in Alberta, the RCMP is finishing its first review in decades of a program to help treat post-traumatic stress.

Details on how many officers have sought help for anxiety related to the Mayerthorpe killings six years ago aren't available, but there are indications that what happened may have left lingering effects.

Two officers who responded to the bloody crime have filed lawsuits against the RCMP in which they claim significant emotional suffering. Allen Starman and Jeff Whipple's allegations have not been proven in court.

And an officer who pleaded guilty last fall to assaulting a prisoner in Lac La Biche, Alta., blamed his violent behaviour on stress he has felt since James Roszko gunned down the four on his property on March 3, 2005. Cst. Desmond Sandboe is to be sentenced in April.

Officials say the review of the member employee assistance program and the launch of a pilot program to help deal with stress weren't prompted specifically by Mayerthorpe. But there was the realization that officers may need help dealing with the fallout of investigating gruesome crimes.

"Six years ago when Mayerthorpe happened we weren't really very savvy as an organization with regards to the effects of trauma on our members," said Supt. Rich Boughen, the RCMP's director of occupational health and safety in Ottawa.

"Whether it's Mayerthorpe or whether it is a homicide or child abuse or a tragic car accident, we send people into these circumstances, and we are just realizing that there is a price to be paid for that. And the price on emotions - it can be very high."

The assistance program known as MEAP was set up in 1977. Each RCMP division has a peer support co-ordinator as well as other Mounties who volunteer to listen to officers who want or need help. The support group tries to ensure the affected officer's needs are taken care of and that they get proper counselling. MEAP officials are also brought in to speak with officers after major events.

The review has included a survey of those who have used MEAP and of the people who run it. Psychologists have been asked about the program's effectiveness.

Boughen said he hopes to submit a report and any recommendations for changes to RCMP leaders by the end of the month.

A big obstacle preventing officers from getting the help they need for stress isn't covered by the MEAP review - a conservative culture where officers won't seek help because they fear it could hurt their career or make them appear weak.

"One of our inhibitors is culture," Boughen said. "How can he possibly be a police officer if he is going to a psychologist? Everybody needs help at some point in their life. There should be no stigma around seeking out assistance when you need it."

Last winter the RCMP launched a pilot project to help officers open up about their experiences. It involves small groups sitting down for sessions with Staff Sgt. Jeff Morley, a 21-year veteran and trauma expert with a PhD in psychology.

Officers are encouraged to tell each other about some of the horrible things they have seen while investigating homicides, suicides, child pornography and children's deaths. Boughen said each horror is like a rock they toss into a rucksack full of bad memories that they carry around with them.

"At some point your rucksack might get too full of rocks. Too many deaths, too many sexual abuse files. At some point you have to off-load or you're going to squish yourself into the ground," he said.

"These ... sessions are designed to give people a safe environment, where it is non-judgmental, and they can just experience the freedom of being able to release some stuff and be able to hear everybody else's stories," he added.

"I was part of one, and the reality is you realize you are not nearly as messed up as you think you are because everybody else probably feels the same thing. It is just that we are not in an environment - because we are mostly men, big Mounties - that have got to take control all the time. That persona follows us so that when it comes time to say, 'I've got to talk about something,' we just don't."

Funding for the project, which was not part of the MEAP review, runs out at the end of the month. The RCMP has requested $300,000 to keep it going for another year.

Suggestions on how the force can better help its members have also come from civilians.

Margaret Thibault, a victim's services counsellor at the Mayerthorpe detachment, wrote a letter to the RCMP after the shootings. She recommended that more Mounties be trained in stress management debriefings after critical assignments. She also believes leaders should take the training to ensure they understand how such sessions work.

Thibault took a leave of absence and became one of the driving forces behind the Fallen Four memorial in Mayerthorpe to slain constables Peter Schiemann, Leo Johnston, Anthony Gordon and Brock Myrol. She then resigned after 13 years of service with the RCMP.

"I think that some people may not have gotten what they needed," Thibault said. "I left because I personally needed to move into a different area to heal."

Boughen said the RCMP is taking the mental health of its officers seriously and will do more to help its members live balanced lives so they will be healthy when they retire.

"The long-term goal is to make sure that our members are healthy for themselves. That they spend a lot of years in good spirits with good friends collecting a pension," he said.

"I don't want them to be consumed with ghosts of the past."

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