EDITORIALS

PTSD & Police Officer Suicide – Two Dirty Secrets

IMG_3545
WPS OFFICERS AT SCENE OF DOUBLE HOMICIDE (PHOTO JGJ)

Police Officer suicide is a dark subject that many people prefer to avoid.

The Martin Bouchard story brought back some painful memories for me.

Martin Bouchard (30) was an RCMP Officer who suffered from PTSD after working a posting in Shamatttawa, Manitoba, a troubled Indian Reservation 1,200 kilometers northeast of Winnipeg known for substance abuse and suicide.

In 2007, seventy-four (74) youths attempted suicide and a further eighty-two (82) made suicide threats.  In the first five (5) months of 2008 thirty-seven (37) youths and ten (10) adults attempted suicide.  Fifty-two (52) others told health care workers they intended to kill themselves.  The youngest person to attempt suicide was a nine (9) year old child. (Source: Gladu.org “Many suicides in Shamattawa.”)

According to Bouchard’s wife Krista, the suicides and attempt suicides were the most traumatic events for Martin.  Quoted in a Winnipeg Free Press article by reporter Rebekah Funk, Krista got to the crux of the matter, “The biggest thing was the hangers, they called them. They were cutting people out of the trees weekly for attempted suicides and suicides.”

Martin would be diagnosed with depression and PTSD, a devastating condition that affects countless men and women in Law Enforcement and the Military.  Krista reports that Martin became a changed, angry and hostile man, factors that caused the couple to separate.  Simply put, “the job” was eating Martin up.

On November 8, 2012, just four (4) days after handing in his badge, Martin Bouchard committed suicide.

Krista Bouchard links her husbands death to his ongoing struggle with PTSD and believes it was preventable if the RCMP had placed some priority on helping Martin cope with trauma he suffered as a result of his employment.

“They were aware (he) was diagnosed with PTSD and they never, ever, once promoted the idea of treatment for him,” she said.

Reporter Funk quotes RCMP spokesman Sgt Gregg Cox who indicated, “Work-related health issues, whether physical or mental, are taken very seriously.”  Cox goes on to say Mounties are screened for mental health issues every three (3) years and are offered treatment options.  He then went on to say officers showing signs of PTSD have their responsibilities “adjusted in accordance with their limitations and restrictions while supporting their treatment.”

A strange choice of words I thought, responsibilities adjusted in accordance with officers “limitations & restrictions.”

It seems to me the spokesman has unwittingly supported the stigma inherent in Police culture that officers who acknowledge they have suffered workplace emotional trauma have “limitations” and “restrictions,” words some might suggest infer they are “weak” or “less than.”  The very stigma that prevents Police Officers from acknowledging trauma and seeking professional assistance in the first place.  Police Wellness Officers will tell you the number one reason Police Officers fail to access help is the fear of the loss or destruction of their careers.

The internalization of emotional injury or Post Incident Trauma often has deadly consequences.  The fact is, Police Officers suffer as many or more deaths from suicides then they do from on duty incidents with dangerous offenders.

My first experience with a Police Officer suicide came on September 20, 1989 with the untimely death of nineteen (19) year Police veteran Inspector Ken Dowson (43), a seasoned and respected member of the Winnipeg Police Department.  Ken was embroiled in an enquiry into the 1988 death of an Aboriginal man who had been shot by Police.  In fact, on the day of his death he was expected to take the witness stand and defend a controversial investigation that was under heavy scrutiny.  Ken waited until 8:30 am when his wife and three teenaged children left their home.  He then called his longtime friend and Police partner and shot himself with his service revolver.

With only two (2) years of Police Service under my belt at the time, I recall feeling shocked and disturbed by the news.  I didn’t know Inspector Dowson well but I did have a meaningful tete a tete with him one day when I bumped into him by the back doors of the Public Safety Building.  It was a ten-minute conversation filled with inspiration and encouragement for a hungry Rookie cop from a man who truly loved his profession and his role as a leader.

The tragic loss of Police Inspector Ken Dowson opened my eyes to the “not so obvious” dangers of Policing.

Sadly, Inspector Dowson would not be the last Police Officer we would lose to the tragic circumstances of suicide.  I fondly remember our fallen brothers and think of them often.

Constable Raymond L’Heureux (37) – July 22, 1997

Ray was a hard working diligent Police Officer who kept to himself and seemed to shy away from the limelight.  I was a rookie in field training when I met him and admired his quiet confidence.  His death was another disturbing traumatic event for many officers.

Constable Sukhvir Brar (41) – September 25, 2004

Suk, as he was affectionately known, was born in the Village of Patto Hira Singh, Moga, Punjab, India and was the first Sikh Indo Canadian to become a member of the Winnipeg Police Service.  Suk had a tremendous sense of humor and always kept those around him entertained by his quick wit and willingness to discuss culturally sensitive issues.  He death was a shock to many of us.

Detective Sean Trowski (46) – November 11, 2006 (WPS & VPD)

After serving ten (10) years with the WPS Sean joined the Vancouver Police Department where he enjoyed a successful career.  Sean worked in Sex Crimes and the Homicide Squad with the VPD and had an excellent reputation as an intelligent, thorough investigator.

I had the pleasure of sharing a cocktail with Sean while attending a Homicide conference in Vancouver in 2002.  I was happy to see he had managed to retain his quick wit, good sense of humor and boyish good looks.  He was a guy that seemed to have everything going for him.   His death was deeply disturbing to his brother and sister officers.

Patrol Sergeant Jeremy Harewood (47) – October 29, 2007

Jeremy Harewood was born in London, England and came to Canada at the age of seven (7).  His Police career began in 1992 and featured assignments in uniform patrol, Youth Division and Recruiting.  In 2006 Jeremy was promoted to Patrol Sergeant and took a job working in District #6 where I was running the Crime Unit.  Jeremy was the consummate professional and sought my advice on a number of Policing issues.  Our interactions always stayed on the professional side and never ventured into our personal lives.  It seemed that Jeremy wanted it that way and I respected his boundaries.

When the news of his death came I was filled with regret for not having pried into his personal life.  I would learn that Jeremy was the proud father of two (2) beautiful daughters and that he was struggling with issues related to a marriage breakdown.  As a divorcee who went to war for custody of my own two (2) daughters, I could have shared experiences with Jeremy that would have surely given him hope to keep fighting.  His death will always weigh heavily on me.

Studies in the United States show that suicides in Law Enforcement occur 1.5 times more frequently than they do in the general population.  Police Officers – 18/100,000 vs General Population – 12/100,000.

Contributory Factors Include:*

  • Relationship difficulties – often aggravated by Police profession
  • Shift Work
  • Alcohol or Substance Abuse
  • Legal Issues
  • Facing Prosecution
  • Negative Public Image
  • Financial Problems
  • Physical Pain or Illness
  • Inconsistencies in the Criminal Justice System
  • Shame / Humiliation
  • Unrealistic expectations of self or from others
  • Easy access to highly effective means of suicide (96+% use firearms)

*Source: The Badge of Life Canada

I can’t say what, if anything, Post Traumatic Stress had to do with the deaths of these officers, but I can say with certainty that a career in Policing is a mind-altering experience.  Police Officers see the dark side of humanity and are exposed to extraordinary brutality and horrific imagery.  On top of that, Policing requires that Officers remain in a constant state of hyper vigilance.**

Rookie Police Officers quickly learn that in order to be successful at your job you simply can’t believe anything anyone tells you.  Virtually everyone lies to Police Officers, victims, witnesses and suspects.  A Police Officer’s primary job function is to seek the truth, to find out what happened, to determine who is responsible for a crime.  That search for the truth requires that Officers place heavy scrutiny on every piece of information they receive.

The ability to scrutinize becomes the Police Officers Achilles heel in his personal life when he fails to turn that “switch” off when he drops his gun belt at the end of his shift.  I realized I had fallen into that trap after attending a seminar called Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement featuring Dr Kevin M Gilmartin Ph.D.

I was the hypervigilant cop Dr Gilmartin warned us about.  I frequently interrogated my wife and daughters and placed heavy scrutiny on everyone I met outside of the Police Universe.  I was the quintessential cop both on and off duty.  Ironically, I was everything the Police Service trained me to be, a top notch, hyper-vigilant cop who was slowly losing faith in humanity.  I knew I had to change or risk alienating the very people who cared most about me.  I’m thankful I got the message before it was to late.

I recently wrote a story called “Policing – A Career Full of Nightmares.”  The story went somewhat viral on social media and recorded over 28,000 views.  The topic was PTSD and the horrific imagery Police Officers are exposed to during their Law Enforcement Careers.

After reading the story a Facebook friend with Law Enforcement experience commented;

“The Military recognize the ‘cumulative’ results of these traumas and have treatments for the “Operational Stress Injuries” and/or “Post Traumatic Stress” – the Police Community lag years behind in their proper recognition and treatment holding on to outdated policies – I fear our members exist in a pressure cooker with the exponential increase and frequency of those types of incidents and calls, day in and day out. Add in the abject treatment of the Police by its citizens, the media and dare I say, its Management and Justice, and I see issues such as what you mention becoming worse over time. My hat goes off to those brave heroes who put on that uniform every day striving to help their fellow citizens and maintain peace and sanity in an ever increasingly chaotic and savage world.”

A heartfelt message of concern that Police Executives should be alert to.

The “limitations” remark made by RCMP Spokesman reminded me of a conversation I had with a man I met while on vacation in Mexico in 2012.  His name was Dave Fischl.  He was an “Inclusion consultant,” who specialized in bringing diversity and inclusion into unionized workplaces.  Mr Fischl had developed expertise in specialty hiring practices that include:

  • Aboriginal employees
  • Persons with cognitive issues
  • Visible minorities
  • Persons with “disabilities”
  • Women – in non-traditional occupations

Dave told me a story about his advocacy for persons with perceived disabilities, how he pushed companies to stretch their boundaries and offer employment to people with physical and mental challenges.  In a twist of fate, Dave received a phone call and learned his newly born grandchild had been diagnosed with Down Syndrome.  The news shook him and he found himself struggling to cope with the reality of the situation.  Dave was a leader in his family and realized he had the ability to shape his family members perception of the challenge of raising a child with significant issues.

That’s when he realized it was time he started practicing what he had been preaching.  He realized the shock of the news had him fixated on the wrong information.  His thoughts had been consumed by questions regarding “limitations” rather than focusing on abilities.  The child’s abilities suddenly became much more important than his perceived disabilities.

“It’s all about looking at a persons abilities.  It totally changes the way you look at people, it’s that invisible barrier we don’t even know we have,” he said.

People in Law Enforcement who are exposed to extraordinary horrific events will be injured and changed by their experiences.  That, I’m afraid, is the inconvenient truth.  It’s the responsibility of the employer to recognize the trauma and have effective protocols to assist employees cope with the trauma they experience by virtue of their employment.

When it comes to re-integration into the workplace, I would suggest Police Agencies start to consider the officers “abilities” and not their “limitations.”

To me, “limitations” is a dirty word, not PTSD or Police Officer Suicide.

Let’s take care of each other.

RELATED LINKS:

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS – REBEKAH FUNK “Better PTSD Treatment for RCMP Urged”

CBC NEWS “OPP Suicides Higher than On Duty Deaths Ombudsman Says.”

PRIME TIME CRIME – BOB COOPER “I’m Alright Sarge, Really…”

DAVE FISCHL – O’Fischl Inclusion

HYPER-VIGILANCE:

Hyper-vigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats. Hypervigilance is also accompanied by a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion. Other symptoms include: abnormally increased arousal, a high responsiveness to stimuli, and a constant scanning of the environment for threats.  In hypervigilance, there is a perpetual scanning of the environment to search for sights, sounds, people, behaviors, smells, or anything else that is reminiscent of threat or trauma. The individual is placed on high alert in order to be certain danger is not near. Hyper-vigilance can lead to a variety of obsessive behavior patterns, as well as producing difficulties with social interaction and relationships.

Hyper-vigilance can be a symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and various types of anxiety disorder. It is distinguished from paranoia. Paranoid states, such as those in schizophrenia, can seem superficially similar, but are characteristically different.

Hypervigilance is differentiated from dysphoric hyperarousal in that the person remains cogent and aware of his or her surroundings. In dysphoric hyperarousal, the PTSD victim may lose contact with reality and re-experience the traumatic event verbatim. Where there have been multiple traumas, a person may become hypervigilant and suffer severe anxiety attacks intense enough to induce a delusional state where the effect of the traumas overlap: e.g., one remembered firefight may seem too much like another for the person to maintain calm. This can result in the thousand-yard stare.

**Source – Wikipedia

11 Comments

  1. Hyper-vigilance isn’t the only symptom of PTSD. Here is a list (you may have some of these symptoms or all depending on how long you’ve chosen to put off treatment):

    -Explosive feelings (anger, rage fear etc.)
    -Inhibited feelings (feeling numb or flat, no affect)
    -Tension-reduction behaviors (alcoholism, drug use, sex or food addiction, self-harm, risky behaviors)
    -Memory problems
    -Flashbacks, reliving tramatic events
    -Detachment (intentional)
    -Dissociation (unintentional)
    -Sense of feeling completely different from others
    -Shame, guilt, stigma, helplessness
    -Negative core beliefs (ie. I am weak)
    -Worried, catastrophic thinking or fearful thoughts
    -hyper-vigilance
    -Difficulty in relationships (withdrawal, distrust, isolation)
    -Trouble negotiating personal boundaries
    -Reduced awareness or ability to express ones needs
    -Loss of faith, despair
    -Viewing world as an unsafe place
    -Sadness, depression
    -Suicide ideation
    -Stress, anxiety, panic
    -Racing heart, shortness of breath
    -Mood swings (weeping, raging)
    -Fatigue
    -Physically numb, body aches
    -Brain fog
    -Irregular sleep patterns (too much, not enough)
    -Headaches

    As you can see there’s a whole host of symptoms you can accumulate if you don’t seek treatment in a timely fashion (feel free to add your own). I know you worry about your jobs and finances (they were my worries too), but this illness can be deadly and I’m hoping officers (that includes war vets and civilians), will address these issues during the early onset of symptoms. Please, if you’re very ill, place your health first before your job and finances. Things tend to look bleeker while you’re not feeling well. Hang in there, and I promise “This too shall pass.” You won’t always feel this way and everything WILL workout.

    To the powers that be: Move faster when you’re processing paperwork for your disabled persons. You have no idea the incredible, emotional burden your putting on chronically ill officers. Someone should be advocating for these officers to make the whole process run smoothly without aggrevation.

    Tom Wickett >> Homewood in Guelph, Ontario (they take out of province patients). Eight week, in-patient. Very nice, private…

  2. Hi Neil. Is there anything on paper that indicates some form of help for PTSD. or is it just word of mouth.

  3. Thanks for this website, I have been diagnosed since January with severe PTSD. My agency has abandoned me, I have four doctors saying I have it, one of which Work Comp sent me to, however Work Comp sent me to another Dr. and he says I dont have PTSD, after a 20 minute session. When I have been seeing the other WC doctor since March. So now they have cut off all benefits and pay. I tried to fight it because I knew this would happen. Just not having anyone to turn to for help is whats bad. I have put in 30 years in Law enforcement. 18 with the Mo. Hwy Patrol and they have just abandoned me when I really needed help.

  4. Jen…

    Appreciate your comments and the courage you have to stand up and be counted.

    I am glad you are on the road to recovery. Recognizing the condition is a big step, getting treatment is vital. PTSD is only starting to be understood in the world of Law Enforcement. Rigid establishments like the RCMP can be slow to change. Hang in their friend, the road is rocky.

  5. I am a 21 year serving member of the RCMP. I recently tried killing myself because of a number of issues. I have been diagnosed with cumulative PTSD. Before I attempted suicide I told HSO that I was slipping and the reply as that someone would email me. Well three weeks later I tried to kill myself. I couldn’t do it anymore. I am on the road to recovery but wish we had access to a peer support group but that has not and will not be a thing that the RCMP will support. I am vocal about PTSD but you can be looked down at. I hope one day that more will be done to help the members. I have a short time before retirement. I wont be staying a day longer. Thank you for your article.

  6. Thanks Rick..

    I truly appreciate your comments…

  7. Amen to that!

  8. Mike…

    Thanks very much for reading and posting a comment.

    One of the reasons I wrote the story was to get a conversation going and try and help remove the stigma that comes with PTSD and Police Officer suicide.

    I know there are a lot more stories like yours out there and I appreciate the fact that you shared yours.

    Now that I am out of the game I am only starting to appreciate the heavy toll a career in Policing places on Officers and family alike. In the end, your service is only “truly” appreciated by a very small select group.

    I hope you are well.

  9. Mike MacKenzie

    I was a member of the RCMP now retired not because I wanted to but knew if I did not leave I would have got myself in a lot of trouble. I was off duty for serious mental health disorder and all I got from my Supervisors (Sgt,S/Sgt was more than enough harassment as to when I was coming back. Not only that they had every confidential conversation I had with my doctor sent to them. I found out this through access to information. They drove my best friend who was a member to suicide this is a fact, they tormented him so much and harassed him, he went to his garage and hung himself. I tried going through chain of command good luck. I had sixteen years in and had enough. Sorry for your loss.

  10. Thanks for writing about this. Just when I think I’m alone in this another good article or comment is made.

    James is so right in his comments…

  11. Yep,

    a normal citizen has no idea.
    You have to live it to know it.

Share your thoughts - we value your opinion!