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Auditor-General expected to expose RCMP’s mental-health failings Add to ...

The RCMP is bracing for tough new questions on the way the force treats its members across the country, this time in relation to the handling of mental-health issues by Mounties who are struggling to deal with stressful and traumatic incidents, sources say.

The Auditor-General of Canada will release a report on the RCMP’s mental-health strategy on Tuesday. According to officials who are aware of its contents, the report paints a largely negative picture of the services provided to Mounties over the years, which stands to further darken the force’s reputation in the eyes of the public.

“It’s not laudatory,” a senior officer at the RCMP said of the report.

Read more: RCMP on trial: Stalled salaries, officer safety in focus

The national police force has struggled in recent years with issues such as widespread sexual harassment of female members going back decades, and a number of fatal incidents that raised questions about training and equipment, culminating with the fatal shooting of three Mounties in Moncton three years ago.

In a separate report on Monday, which is also expected to be hard-hitting, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP will address “workplace harassment” in the national police force.

The Auditor-General’s report deals with issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is on the rise in the RCMP, but also with a series of other mental-health problems that regularly affect officers such as anxiety, depression and other stress-related issues.

The Auditor-General’s work will build on a series of public complaints by current and retired Mounties about the lack of treatment for mental-health problems. Corporal Curtis Barrett, who was one of two people who shot terrorist Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in Parliament’s Centre Block in 2014, has publicly criticized the RCMP for failing to support him after the incident, revealing he was suicidal for a period.

“Nobody from my organization was calling me to say, ‘Good job,’ ” Cpl. Barrett told a mental-health conference earlier this year. “I went from being … ‘I’m a rock-star hero,’ to ‘I feel like driving my car into a truck.’ ”

In another case, Cpl. Ron Francis sought the right to smoke marijuana on the job to cope with PTSD. His suicide in 2014 brought issues of mental health to the forefront of the public agenda, including widespread criticism of the RCMP’s handling of his case.

“They took his uniform from him, they stripped him of his privileges, they charged him under the Police Act … and he always came back to ‘I just want them to understand what I am going through,’ ” his friend and lawyer T.J. Burke said at the time.

The Auditor-General’s report is expected to lay out the RCMP’s failures in addressing the needs of Mounties who are affected by critical incidents, such as fatal shootings and hostage situations, or from an accumulation of highly stressful calls. RCMP members also deal with mental-health issues that stem from their regular duties, including participating in undercover operations or child pornography investigations.

Asked for their reaction to the upcoming report, senior officials at the RCMP acknowledged shortcomings in their past handling of mental-health issues, but described a series of recent initiatives to improve training and services to members. A key effort is to destigmatize mental-health problems among Mounties.

“We’re trying to build an organization that becomes very understanding and compassionate with regards to mental-health issues in the workplace,” said Assistant Commissioner Stephen White, who is the RCMP’s mental-health champion.

“We’re a very large organization, with a history as a paramilitary organization, a policing organization with a lot of structure around it right across the country. So in terms of us changing the culture around stigma related to mental health, it is not something that takes place or is fully implemented overnight, in a week or years. It’s an ongoing work in progress,” he said.

The RCMP has drastically overhauled its mental-health strategy in recent years, offering 24/7 access to the Health Canada employee-assistance program since 2013 and putting a growing emphasis on peer-to-peer support services.

The force is also working on training all current and future employees on its mental-health services by 2018.

A key challenge for the RCMP has been officers falling through the cracks of a complex disability system after being involved in traumatic incidents. Former Mountie Trevor Josok, for example, is challenging his 2016 dismissal from the RCMP after he developed PTSD following the shooting of four of his colleagues at Mayerthorpe in Alberta in 2005.

The RCMP is now in the final stages of overhauling its program to deal with officers on disability leave, with a clear emphasis on helping officers with mental-health issues to remain on the job or get new duties inside the force in a majority of cases.

“The focus of this program is retention,” said Christine Sakiris, who is the head of the force’s disability management and accommodation programs. “It’s not easy to train an RCMP member … we want to retain the services of the members that we have.”

Still, the RCMP is facing questions over the speed with which new programs have been put in place. For example, a new “stress-management after-care guide” was recently put in place to deal with Mounties involved in so-called critical incidents, which refer to shooting, fatal auto crashes and other events that can trigger cases of PTSD and other issues.

However, the guide was only released in 2016, two years after both the Moncton shootings, in which three officers were killed by Justin Bourque, and the attack involving Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau.

Assistant Commissioner White is well aware the RCMP will face questions over the speed with which programs have been adapted to a changing environment surrounding mental-health issues.

“We’re going in the right direction,” he said. “The Auditor-General is currently doing an audit of our mental-health service delivery, so we’re hoping that from that, we’ll get some good feedback and recommendations in terms of continuing to enhance what we are doing and doing some things differently.”

RCMP chief psychologist Roxane Marois added: “We have always adapted to new realities and new approaches. Still, adapting takes time, it doesn’t happen overnight and we have to undertake proper research to find the right solutions.”

The RCMP is set to launch a 10-year study to monitor the mental health of new recruits as they move into the force and go through their first assignments.

“Despite everything that we have done … we are very mindful that we need to do more,” said Sylvie Châteauvert, the RCMP’s director-general of occupational health and safety.

Investigator Jagdeep Soin, who helps his colleagues through peer-to-peer support, said Mounties are used to spending months training how to shoot or drive their police cars. He said they are now also learning how to take care of their bodies and their minds.

“Just because you have six-months’ training, it doesn’t prepare you for that, for your human emotions,” he said of a Mountie’s life.

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