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Canada As police gain awareness of PTSD, Mounties see diagnoses doubling

The number of RCMP officers recognized by the federal government for suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions has nearly doubled in five years, according to statistics obtained by The Globe and Mail.

Government records obtained under the Access to Information Act indicate that at least 8 per cent of serving police officers within Canada's largest force have been diagnosed with PTSD and are now getting treatment for it. Similar surges in diagnoses loom for other Canadian police forces, as well as firefighters, paramedics and jail guards, according to police, government and academic sources.

Public-safety work cultures, once surrounded by stoicism and stigma about mental-health issues, are now evolving into environments where people are more encouraged to spot problems and seek help. Emergency responders are increasingly describing how horrific accidents, or being involved in violent brawls and deadly standoffs, have caused them PTSD and spin-off conditions, such as depression, alcoholism or suicidal thoughts.

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Read more: 'Vicarious trauma' from PTSD can be passed from parent to child

Despite this, concrete initiatives and hard numbers relating to PTSD problems are a rarity in most public-safety organizations in Canada. "Based on available data, it is estimated that in Canada, between 10 per cent and 35 per cent of first responders will develop PTSD," Lori MacDonald, a senior Public Safety Canada civil servant, testified to Parliament this past spring.

The RCMP appears to be unique among Canadian agencies in terms of having recourse to some data. Mounties who suffer physical or mental injuries can tap into health clinics and compensation programs run by Veterans Affairs Canada, the same federal department that treats members of the Canadian Forces.

In the military, treating PTSD is a relative priority compared to within policing organizations. The Globe and Mail, which first requested the PTSD numbers related to the RCMP five years ago, recently obtained updated Veterans Affairs Canada figures under the Access to Information Act.

As of March, 2016, there were 1,244 serving members of the RCMP considered clients of Veterans Affairs for PTSD issues. This compares to only 740 serving RCMP members five years before.

On top of this, nearly 2,000 Mounties who have retired or been released from the force are also PTSD clients of Veterans Affairs. This was the case for only about 1,000 officers in 2011.

Increasingly, government officials speak of operational stress injuries (OSIs) instead of PTSD, given how the word "injury" lacks the stigma that a term like "disorder" can have. Though frequently synonymous with PTSD, an operational stress injury can encompass other conditions.

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While PTSD still accounts for about 80 per cent of RCMP OSIs, the total encompasses nearly 4,000 serving and released RCMP members who have been treated by Veterans Affairs Canada. Nearly 1,500 are considered still-serving officers, a figure that would amount to about 8 per cent of the uniformed members of the force.

(In a footnote, Veterans Affairs says its "still-serving" metric might be imprecise because RCMP officers don't always inform the department when they quit the police force.)

Veterans Affairs keeps these numbers because it handles compensation claims. Payment of successful claims, which are known as pensions, can go to serving and released RCMP members, and can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars a month.

"The RCMP has taken a very active role in trying to reduce stigma, increase awareness and make resources available for their membership," says Nick Carleton, a professor in Saskatchewan who is canvassing emergency responders across Canada about OSIs.

The Mounties are now in the midst of a drive by members to unionize the police force for the first time in the RCMP's history. Organizers have been pointing out that the rank-and-file officers are stressed because they shoulder heavy workloads compared to other police forces in Canada, and also that individual RCMP officers often patrol remote regions with little or no backup compared to their big-city counterparts.

In Ottawa, however, the police force's leadership says that PTSD numbers are growing largely because the Mounties have been paying closer attention to the issues in recent years. "Work-related stress and mental illness is a real issue … that the RCMP takes very seriously," Sergeant Julie Gagnon , a spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed response to questions from The Globe.

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"The RCMP does not tolerate the outdated attitude that mental-health injuries are not real, and is countering this attitude with education and awareness," she said, adding that the Mounties are not any more susceptible to PTSD than any other police force.

Sgt. Gagnon said the RCMP is shifting its own resources to address problems, for example by redirecting some in-house medical professionals from recruitment to focus on existing members. Funding has also been earmarked for disability-management programs including efforts to get better data about the scope of PTSD.

Observers say such problems extend well beyond the RCMP.

Municipal and provincial bureaucracies are often surprised to hear anecdotal evidence about how much the problem has taken root in their own forces, said Tom Stamatakis of the Canadian Police Association, in an interview.

The CPA is an umbrella group for mostly municipal police unions across the country. And, during stark testimony to a parliamentary committee this spring, Mr. Stamatakis said the problems cut across all public-safety professions, including firefighters, paramedics and jail guards.

"Since April, 2014, 77 first responders have taken their own lives," he testified. He did not provide a breakdown of that figure.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last year appointed Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale with a mandate to come up with a national action plan for PTSD among public-safety professionals. In October, federal MPs on a legislative committee urged the creation of a Canadian Institute for Public Safety Officer Health Research.

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