The death of a retired Manitoba RCMP officer who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder has advocates for first responders and their families urging those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to get help and support.
Cpl. Ken Barker, an RCMP dog handler who recently retired from the police force, committed suicide on July 11 in Winnipeg after a long battle with PTSD.
"Yeah, I don't have cancer, I didn't get shot, I don't have a tumour," said Paul Brisson. "I don't have visible injuries, but I assure you I have plenty of wounds and so did Ken."
Brisson and Barker were friends of 27 years and worked together in B.C.
Brisson also suffered from PTSD after going to Haiti following a major earthquake.
Both Brisson and Barker were originally from Winnipeg and hit it off immediately. But over the years the horrors they witnessed on the job caught up with them.
Brisson said it's an epidemic in the force, but many officers are scared to come forward to get help.
"Fearful because of the stigma of not wanting to be acknowledged to have some type of mental illness and even saying that you have PTSD right now within the force is still a tough sell," said Brisson. "With PTSD you have to say, you know, 'I'm burnt out, I'm broken.’"
Brisson retired from the RCMP two years ago and still sees a therapist. He estimated one quarter of officers suffer from PTSD.
"You try to keep it together, maintain a normal life and go about your business, but after a while it takes its toll," he said.
Brisson will read a prayer at a memorial service for Barker Wednesday afternoon.
Lori Wilson, who started the Facebook page Families of the RCMP for PTSD Awareness, said Barker's wife asked her to share the Mountie's story. It has reached more than 250,000 people since it was posted on Monday.
"It was a profound response," Wilson told CBC News on Thursday via Skype. "It struck a chord to a lot of people."
Barker is among 13 first responders with PTSD who have committed suicide in the past 10 weeks, according to the Ontario-based Tema Conter Memorial Trust.
'National dialogue' on PTSD needed
"We suffer in silence," said McKenzie, a former Canadian soldier with PTSD.
"We don't like to call it suffering but the reality is that's what people are doing," said McKenzie. "They're suffering in silence and because of the stigmas — and especially work-related PTSD — people are too afraid to come forward. It hurts their careers."
Veteran Steve Hartwig and McKenzie are embarking on a cross-Canada walk with other soldiers to raise awareness for those struggling with PTSD.
Hartwig was once caught in an armoured vehicle explosion in the former Yugoslavia and knows what kind of affect traumatic events can have on soldiers, officers and their families.
Now, Hartwig is walking across the country with his fellow servicemen to raise awareness for people like Barker.
"It's like going back to the day, we're doing a lot of processing in the vehicle," said Hartwig. "We have moments of our own agitation, our own stuff that needs to be worked on and it's a great support system, so the brotherhood, the community of people with PTSD needs, we need a national dialogue."
Barker's family told the Winnipeg Free Press that Barker struggled to cope with a number of traumatic experiences on the job, including the murder and beheading of Tim McLean aboard a Greyhound bus in 2008.
"PTSD doesn't just affect the individual who's experienced the trauma. It also affects their family and the people around them," said Dr. Pamela Holens, a clinical psychologist and an assistant professor with the Operational Stress Injury Clinic at the University of Manitoba.
Wilson said her husband was an RCMP officer who eventually sought treatment for his PTSD. She said there was a time when she didn't know where to turn.
"I didn't understand his behaviour. I didn't understand why he didn't love us anymore," she said.
"There was at least over a year that I was terrified I was going to come home and find my husband hanging in our laundry room."
Wilson said police officers and other first responders, as well as their families, should know there is help available for those with PTSD, as well as love and support.