Richard Chenier had a breakdown in 1971 when, as a young RCMP officer working on the outskirts of Winnipeg, he answered a call to find his mentor on the ground bleeding from a bullet wound that had penetrated his head through his eye socket.
Over the next 34 years, Mr. Chenier was admitted to hospital as a mental patient eight times, always after weeks of nightmares about Constable Harry Seigel’s violent death. He saw countless doctors and psychiatrists. Some said he was depressed, some said he had bipolar disorder, and some attributed his troubles to the alcohol he started drinking after the shooting.
It wasn’t until 2006, when he was attending a conference on mental illness, that a prominent psychiatrist from Alberta said “you have PTSD. I want you to get some help.” They were words that changed Mr. Chenier’s life.
But other Canadians with post-traumatic stress disorder – military personnel, veterans, police officers, first responders, battered spouses, children raised in abusive homes – may never be properly diagnosed because, like the doctors who treated Mr. Chenier, many family physicians simply don’t know the signs.
On Thursday, The Mood Disorders Society of Canada, the Canadian Depression Research and Intervention Network (CDRIN), and the Canadian Medical Association will announce a new federally funded course for doctors to help them identify and treat PTSD – the disorder that has been associated with a recent spate of soldier suicides.
“Eighty-five per cent of people who present with mental-health problems, including PTSD, present to their family physician,” said Mr. Chenier, now the project manager for the Mood Disorders Society. “Family physicians do not have the tools or the time, in a lot of cases, to deal with it – or even to diagnose it.”
Phil Upshall, the executive director of the Mood Disorder Society and a co-director of CDRIN, said it is apparent to him that most family physicians are not fully prepared to deal with the vast range of mental-health issues.
When a well-attended roundtable of mental-health stakeholders was asked in 2006 to name the biggest obstacle to mental-health treatment, the top response was the lack of training for general practitioners, Mr. Upshall said. “The signs and diagnostic tools for even the simplest mental-health issues were skimmed over in their training” and, for many years, the medical community was unwilling to acknowledge its deficiencies, he said.
So, the Mood Disorders Society developed a course to teach doctors how to change their practice to make it more comfortable for a person to discuss their mental illness. It was a success.
And now the group is turning to PTSD.
It “is a huge issue,” Mr. Upshall said. “From our perspective, concrete actions to deal with it were not occurring. There was lots of talk, there was lots of pointing fingers. That doesn’t help the problem.”
The PTSD course, which will include input from mental-health experts and people living with the disorder, is expected to be credited by the College of Family Physicians of Canada and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Kathy Lawrence, the president of the College of Family Physicians, praised the initiative, saying: “This is a valuable opportunity for family physicians to enhance their ability to provide quality care to their patients.”
Because of his PTSD, Mr. Chenier, who was 24 when his friend was killed, has led a difficult life. His first marriage fell apart. His children went through turmoil. He lost his job a year after the shooting. But signs that the incident had left him permanently scarred were visible from the start.
For five nights, he was left to guard his friend’s killer who was restrained in a hospital bed.
“I was so emotional, I took my gun out of the holster and he opened up his mouth and I put it in the guy’s mouth,” Mr. Chenier said. “It started rattling between his teeth because I was shaking. So, thank God, I took the gun out of his mouth. I couldn’t tell anyone about this ... how close I came to taking another person’s life.”
But Mr. Chenier was lucky. After years of stints in mental hospitals, he stumbled upon someone who knew what was wrong with him. And he got the right treatment.
“There is a very, very good chance, according to my psychiatrists and psychologists and my doctor, that I will never end up in hospital again,” Mr. Chenier said. “Which is wonderful.”