RCMP struggling with post traumatic stress disorder within the ranks

Dene Moore
December 29, 2010
By Dene Moore
VANCOUVER - Ron Campbell was a crisis negotiator and veteran officer of the RCMP when he was called out with the emergency response team to a standoff near Edmonton six years ago.

VANCOUVER - Ron Campbell was a crisis negotiator and veteran officer of the RCMP when he was called out with the emergency response team to a standoff near Edmonton six years ago.

The perpetrator was mentally ill and, as Campbell recounts, it was clear that he wanted to die and he wanted to take a police officer with him. In the end, he did both.

The officer who lay dead at the end of the day was a friend of Campbell's, one of the dog handlers. After 24 years in the force dealing with death and violence as a beat cop, traffic investigator, surveillance officer and major crimes investigator, this was the final blow that sent Campbell's life careening out of control.

"I was suddenly faced with a situation I didn't know how to cope with. Seeing my friend laying dead in a roadway just, it knocked my socks off, I don't know how else to say it," says Campbell, an RCMP Sgt.

Traumatic events from more than two decades as an RCMP officer caught up with him and "all of a sudden everything starts crashing down around you."

The ordeal of Canadian soldiers returning from overseas assignments in places like Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda has shed light on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but the military ombudsman's annual report for 2008-2009 noted that what the military calls "operational stress injury" is also a problem for police.

"Operational stress injuries are a cross-jurisdictional issue inextricably linked to service in the Canadian Forces or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and have a huge impact on the veteran community," noted the report.

Internal RCMP documents obtained by The Canadian Press under Access to Information laws show that as of June 30, 2009, Veterans Affairs Canada, which contracts services to the RCMP, had 1,298 RCMP clients with disability benefits for PTSD. Only hearing loss and lumbar disc disease were more prevalent among its RCMP clientele.

By Sept. 30, 2009, there were 1,711 RCMP clients with a psychiatric condition, which included PTSD, anxiety disorders, panic disorders and depression. Of those, 1,051 were released members of the force, and 660 were still serving.

The national police force recognizes the problem, and many changes have been made over the years to try and address the issue of traumatic stress and the toll it is taking on the ranks.

Yet even an approximate number of members who have requested or been granted leave to deal with post-traumatic stress is not available. Internal RCMP documents note that sick leave for employees is tracked but does not differentiate for specific reasons.

For Campbell, the stress and trauma of 24 years in policing led to anger, insomnia, depression and, ultimately, suicidal thoughts.

"It started to create problems at home. I thought I was hiding it well at work," Campbell says. He was wrong.

An ex-partner came up to him one day and asked him how he was doing.

"I realized I'm not fooling anybody. The only person I was fooling was myself," he says.

"I'm so grateful to her to this day because I was suicidal at the time, I was a mess. There wasn't a day that went by that I didn't think of ending it because I didn't know how to cope. I was just falling apart."

That was when Campbell's road to recovery began. A few weeks later, he made a life-changing call and within a couple of months was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

According to the internal RCMP magazine Frontline Perspective, studies suggest PTSD may be six or more times more prevalent among police officers than the rest of the community. The same article said studies have shown suicides occur three times more often among police than among the general population.

"I think there is a higher percentage of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder within not only the police force but in any profession that is exposed to traumatic events, that includes military, paramedics, as well as police," says Dr. Brian Hindmarch, an Edmonton psychologist whose practice has included RCMP clients for 25 years.

Greater social acceptance means more people are coming forward to get help, he says, but for those who don't, the consequences can be devastating.

"Traditionally in the police and military cultures, the way in which stress-related issues were dealt with was usually by substance abuse, by alcohol intoxication, by alcohol abuse and other substance abuse. Self-medication has always been the most common way of dealing with stress," Hindmarch says.

Campbell remembers the days when alcohol was the most common cure for on-the-job stress. Today, officers undergo a formal debrief after a critical incident.

"In the old days, they involved a whisky bottle. You got around and everybody had a few drinks and maybe even got drunk, and that was your critical incident stress debrief, never to be spoken about again," he says.

The RCMP has counsellors on staff, referrals to outside support services and an employee assistance program. There is a peer-support program in the works and there has been an "almost paradigm shift" in the thinking from the upper reaches of the force on down, says Campbell.

"We were in denial for so long: Suck it up, Buttercup, and get on with it, it's your job," he says.

The RCMP has introduced several new and pilot programs aimed at combating and preventing what the military call "operational stress injuries." Among them, the force was considering a mandatory reporting process for possible psychological injuries, as there is for physical injuries.

The force has a psychological assessment process for employees who regularly face traumatic situations, such as working undercover, going overseas or working in isolated outposts such as in the North.

This year, the RCMP also introduced a pilot program offering preventative resiliency training to high risk groups, focusing in the initial stages on child exploitation unit officers, 911 operators, homicide investigators, traffic accident reconstructionists, and forensic identification investigators. Officers working in remote northern detachments are also a priority because of the isolation and the issues they encounter on a regular basis.

Staff-Sgt. Jeff Morley, an RCMP officer and psychologist based in the Vancouver region, says police work, by definition, entails exposure to traumatic events.

"Our employees are being chased, kicked, punched, shot at, stabbed, they're in harm's way, but they're also exposed to a great deal of what we call secondary trauma and that is about exposure to unfixable suffering. And I actually think that is the bigger toxin in policing, for the most part," says Morley.

And not just frontline officers. He says 911 operators, stenographers, court officials, judges and lawyers are also exposed on an ongoing basis to some the worst humanity has to offer. Nurses, doctors and people who work with the homeless are also exposed, he says.

Morley, an RCMP officer for 20 years, is spearheading the three-day resiliency training at a facility in Sidney, B.C., where he gathers groups of eight or nine RCMP employees for three days of learning coping skills and peer support skills.

"We're trying to be far more proactive in addressing things, and to not wait until things bubble over," says Morley, who says RCMP brass are taking the issue seriously and have just dedicated funds for research into resiliency training.

He also does critical incident stress debriefs, and his don't involve a bottle of whisky.

Such debriefs are now routine, says Hindmarch, even in the "macho mentality" of policing and the military. There is always a reaction to emotional trauma but whether it becomes a disorder is dependent on many factors, he says.

"It's not inevitable.... there is a greater likelihood," he says of police and stress injury. "They are exposed routinely to extraordinarily traumatic events.

Despite the increased awareness, the onset of post-traumatic symptoms are frightening for those who experience it, he says. It certainly was for Campbell.

Now 52 and a 30-year veteran of the RCMP, he works in human resources for the force and has lectured across North America about the emotional toll of police work. But when he first realized he had a problem, he was terrified.

"How could this happen to me? I'm a Mountie, for crying out loud, I'm 10 feet tall and bulletproof. This can't happen to me," he recalls thinking.

He thought he would lose his job, but after getting the help he needed, the disorder was transformative for him.

"For me, I'm at a place now that, even though I have to live with this for the rest of my life, I don't regret it happening now because it's led me to a place where I'm helping others in a very significant way."

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