Sarah Niman is a freelance writer in Ottawa
I knew the job had infiltrated our home when I saw my husband turning red, muscles tensing as he screamed at our newborn twins.
They needed to be rocked to sleep, I remember, and he was losing it.
His job as a front-line RCMP officer was breaking him. Office politics and work stress culminated in insomnia during already sleepless nights. He suffered flashbacks, nightmares, and was constantly worried he was being isolated and ostracized at work.
That day, he scared himself. He tells me now he hardly remembers our twins’ birth and early months, precious time he will never get back.
He began seeing the RCMP-designated psychologist in our small, northern posting, after asking a fellow officer for help.
I am one of the lucky ones. My husband found ways to cope with the terrible things he has seen at work. There have been several suicides this year by front-line emergency personnel in Canada, including Ken Barker, a retired RCMP member who responded to the Greyhound bus beheading near Winnipeg in 2008. The Canadian Mental Heath Association classifies post-traumatic stress disorder as a potentially fatal mental illness, and puts military personnel, emergency responders, doctors and nurses at high risk for developing it, in varying degrees.
I know the horrors police officers witness go home with them. I have seen marriages disintegrate, addictions spiral out of control and families become broken. I have held my husband’s hand after especially difficult shifts, not understanding how he could handle attending the scene of a fatal, gory car accident.
It turns out he, and most other front-line police officers, just suck it up.
In training Depot, RCMP recruits are groomed to stifle emotions when attending calls, to maintain their professionalism and safety.
Their spouses, however, do not get training. We are not told what the signs for PTSD are, how to recognize when bad moods linger into depression, what the appropriate response is when our spouse wakes up crying after a flashback nightmare.
RCMP members who recognize they need help can seek it on their own, or access counseling services through their supervisors and peers.
That is, if they ask for help.
Lori Wilson, founder of Families of the RCMP for PTSD Awareness, says the onus needs to shift from members asking for help to supervisors offering it.
“Every supervisor needs to be trained on how to manage a member’s physiological health and be a role model for positive mental health awareness,” Ms. Wilson said.
Requiring that someone suffering from PTSD ask for help in order to receive treatment is a dangerous catch-22, when the illness is often characterized by denial, feeling unworthy, and social withdrawal.
Further, the prevailing ‘tough cop’ culture is a barrier to admitting weakness. No one wants to be the defective officer. It is more than just their professional reputation at stake; it is a matter of life and death. Being burnt out can affect the split-second reaction time that cops need in situations that can ignite instantly.
When they won’t or can’t ask for help at work, the job of mental health advocate, researcher and support falls to the officer’s spouse and family.
It’s time to train all supervisors to identify officers who exhibit PTSD symptoms and offer them help, not leave it up to those suffering in silence.