EDITORIALS

PTSD & LAW ENFORCEMENT – Emotional Trauma a Reality of the Job

RCMP CORP KEN BARKER
RCMP CORP KEN BARKER

The Ken Barker story is a must read for Police Officers or people considering a career in Law Enforcement.

Barker’s story was eloquently told by Kevin Rollason in a Winnipeg Free Press article titled, “Mounties Answer to Pain: Suicide.”

Barker (51) was a retired RCMP Corporal who recently committed suicide after suffering from the crippling effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  After working almost two decades in Law Enforcement, Barker’s life would be significantly impacted when he was one of the first Officers to arrive at the scene of Tim Mclean’s brutal homicide.

“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Barker’s estranged wife Shari said.

She went on to explain Mclean’s killing was just one of many tragic incidents Barker experienced during his career.  These incidents had a profound and cumulative effect on Barker who she described as a “sensitive fellow.”

“I think he was predisposed because of his nature,” she suggested.

Barker’s sister, Wendy Waldner indicated that Mclean’s killers recent bids for increased freedom may have been a trigger for her brother.  “I think I’m too broken to ever be fixed,” he recently told her.  “I wish I had cancer because then people would understand,” he added.

Ken Barker lost his battle with PTSD.

Ken Barker may have been an exceptional human being but his experience in Policing certainly was not.  Police Officers of all stripes are frequently exposed to extremely horrific, graphic, violent incidents that have the potential to cause traumatic and devastating emotional injury.

The Inconvenient Truth

If you choose or have chosen a career in Law Enforcement, the question isn’t “if” you’ll be exposed to horrific, graphic, violent and emotionally damaging events.  The question is how often you’ll experience these exposures and what coping strategies you’ll adopt to deal with the expected emotional injury.

After I retired from Policing in the spring of 2013 I tried to capture the true essence of career in Law Enforcement in a story I wrote called, “Policing – A Career Full of Nightmares.”  I had two primary goals in mind when I published the article;

  • Reach out to Police Officers who may be experiencing the effects of job related emotional trauma or PTSD to share a common bond and to demonstrate acknowledgement, acceptance and support
  • Reach out to the Public to offer an insider’s perspective on job related emotional trauma or PTSD associated with Law Enforcement

The story remains the single most viewed article I’ve written.

That tells me something.

It tells me that people care.

Unfortunately, just caring isn’t enough.

It’s not enough for me because I need to continue to try to increase awareness of Law Enforcement related emotional injury and PTSD.

It’s not enough for Police Executives who have to do more to establish effective programs and protocols for Officers who experience job related emotional trauma or PTSD.

It’s not enough for the Police Officers who work the front lines in the dark corners of societal dysfunction where the emotional injuries occur.  Your co-workers need you to be alert to their emotional well-being, they need you to acknowledge the horrific nature of the work and the potential for emotional injury, they need your acceptance, concern and support.  They need you to be there in the days, weeks, months and years after the damage is done.  It has to start with you.

If you’re a Police Officer, it’s not enough for you to have a limited awareness of Law Enforcement related emotional injury and PTSD.  You need to educate yourself, you need to be proactive when it comes to your emotional health and well-being, you need to have a conscious action plan and you need to build and maintain healthy support systems.

The Numbers Tell the Story

The RCMP recently confirmed that at least thirty-one (31) serving and retired Police Officers have committed suicide since 2006.  Four suicides have occurred within the past year.  Rest assured, this is not just an RCMP problem.

In this spring of 2013 I wrote a story called, “PTSD & Police Officer Suicide – Two Dirty Secrets.”

The story included a link to a CBC news report that indicated OPP suicides were higher than on duty Officer deaths.  (The report indicated a total of twenty-three (23) OPP Officers have committed suicide since 1989.)

It was a hard story to write but I felt it was time.

None of my colleagues in the Winnipeg Police Service openly spoke about our own Police Officer suicides.  I mourned for my lost co-workers but dared not bring up their names in any open discussion in the work place.  It’s just something people really don’t want to talk about.

Would the WPS disclose statistical information regarding Winnipeg Police Officer suicides?

I doubt it.

I suspect they might cite privacy concerns when in reality, the societal stigma attached to suicide remains strong.

That has to change.

PTSD and Police Officer suicide can no longer be allowed to be dirty secrets for Law Enforcement and Law Enforcement families.

It’s time for acknowledgement, talk and action.

RELATED LINK:

CORP Ken Barker Obituary

2 Comments

  1. James for years and year those in police work were always told never to take their work home with them . They can’t speak with anyone how they feel or what took place during work . I don’t think any human could bear the horrors of what police see on a daily basis . Last week I spoke with a couple of former police officers and to my surprise I found out that police officers that I knew were no longer on the force . And it was due to PTSD .

  2. James another excellent article and one of which I took great interest. Those of us who over our careers in law enforcement filled our memory banks with horrors that most would never be exposed to in a life time now see what the end result can be for many of our colleagues across the content. It’s is ironic that Vince Lee can live with what he did but Corporal Ken Barker could no longer live with what he saw.

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