Monday, November 18, 2013

Like that's really 'news' . . . .

The RCMP are missing the mark in assisting members with mental health issues and PTSD in particular.  Recent news stories are being reported and someone seems to have noticed that the number of members on long-term disability due to PTSD has DOUBLED in recent years.  My only comment, as a former RCMP wife, is "Well, DUH?!?!?"

As a society we hold our first responders to a level of super-humanness that is not only unreasonable, but deadly.  When I was in my late teens and my Mom worked as a guard for the local RCMP detachment I remember talking with some of my friends about the newly-minted Mounties that got sent to our town.  My view was:  "When you take any red-blooded Canadian boy, put him in a red suit, give him a gun, a fast car and tell him he is the national image, do NOT be surprised when he gets a big ego."  Sadly, as they say, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

I dated a Mountie back in my old home town when I was in my early 20s.  I remember him commenting that to ask for any type of psychological help was a "career limiting move".  He and his colleagues dealt with the stress the old fashioned way -- they drank, smoked and behaved like rowdy teenagers when off duty.

When Renfrew decided he wanted to be a cop in the early days of our marriage, I said "Anything but RCMP."  He capitulated.  After many different roads, they all lead to red serge.  I sighed and capitulated.

For those not in Canada, the RCMP train in one location and one location only:  Regina, Saskatchewan.  The training course, when Renfrew did it was 22 weeks.  It is now 24.  That is a LONG time to separate a family.  Especially a young family.  Pumpkin turned 3 while her daddy was away.  She went from a 'baby' to a 'big girl' in many, many ways.  He missed it.  Before he left for training, she was definitely 'Daddy's Girl' and the two of them went on adventures on his days off [he was working shift work as a corrections officer and had random days off].  When he got back, things were different.

So, first your spouse is gone for half a year and THEN you find out where you are moving.  No matter how much you prepare yourself for move, it is still world rocking.  For most of the graduates the move was away from where they had lived although a few of Renfrew's classmates went 'home'.  So, a month before he graduated we found out that we would be moving . . . 4 1/2 hours North of where we lived.  At this point, I was still a lawyer.  So, in 30 days I wound down my practice, sold our house, bought a house in the new location (aka the "Middle of Nowhere"), and dealt with a 3 year old whose biggest concern was how she would get to play with her best friend who lived across the street.

This reality for RCMP recruit families, I am sad to say, is typical.  The RCMP is a dictatorship -- it did not matter that I had a career I had been building for 10 years.  It did not matter that our child had friends and connections.  Nope.  Sign on the dotted line and you go where they tell you.  I cannot even imagine how it would have been with a teenager or even an older child who could comprehend how far we were going.

When the 'usual' events in the lives of new RCMP recruits and their families are added up using the Stress Life Event Scale created in 1967 by Holmes and Rahe it looks something like this:  marital separation (the chart does not specify the reason) 65; change in financial state (5 months with reduced family income) 38; change to a different line of work 36; mortgage or loan for a major purpose 31; change in responsibilities at work 29; spouse begins or ends work 26; begin or end school 26; change in work hours 20; change in residence 20; change in sleep habits (welcome to shift work) 16.  This totals 307 -- 80% chance of stress related illness.  Add to that the reality of work as a police officer -- situations that would make the normal person fall apart are just the everyday reality, it is actually amazing that more officers are not on stress leave.

As noted above, the 'Force' has had its collective head in the sand for a very, very long time.  It is not going to change over night or probably even 'over a couple of decades.'  The Members with PTSD are the canaries in the coal mine.  I hope that they are being not only heard, but helped.

Since I do not believe in pointing fingers without offering suggestions for change I would suggest at a minimum level of psychological and psycho-social assistant for RCMP officers rather than "[t]he clinical psychologist works with cadets who consult on a voluntary basis," as described in the Family Information Guide.  Psychological health should be considered every bit as important as physical health, with regular check ups during training.

After graduation, psychological services should be provided to Members on a non-voluntary basis for the first few years.  If the Member is married, then marital counseling should also be non-optional.  Why?  Simple --> if everyone participates then stigma is reduced because it is normalized.  Further, issues can be discovered and dealt with before they reach the boiling point.  Resilience can be built both in the individual Member and the family.  

Having watched not only my marriage, but the marriages of other new RCMP members, slowly break apart, I believe that had a regular psychological check been in place things may have turned out differently.  After our split I did my work and faced my monsters under the bed.  Renfrew did as well.  We have both grown to a point of forgiveness and peace.  But the pain it took before the work began was heart shaking.

The current reality is that the psychologists who do end up involved with RCMP officers and their families are most often like firefighters arriving at a burned-out house.  Their only job is to clean up the mess and put the hot spots out. 

So, I say Bravo to the RCMP Brass for acknowledging the problem.  What they do about it will be the real test.  The lives of our first responders are on the line. 


  1. Well said. I would love to see this post seen as a letter to the editor. More publicity is DEFINITELY needed.

  2. Ditto Stephanie's comment. This needs to be seen by a wider audience.