(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.”