RCMP under fire for lack of mental health help for officers
The RCMP are coming under fire for failing to provide adequate mental health support to members dealing with traumatic situations on the job.
The criticism comes from those who have seen the toll on RCMP members first-hand, including widows and experts, as well as from current members and veterans.
LindaPerchaluk of Roblin, Man., told CBC News the national police force didn’t take her husband’s mental health problems seriously until it was too late.
Her husband, Const. Adrien Gulay, committed suicide in August. He was 45 years old.
“I would phone and fax and email and they would just tell me they couldn’t do anything more,” Perchaluk said.
When two RCMP officers came to her door the morning after Gulay died, Perchaluk said she angrily confronted them.
“I said, ‘Where the hell were you a year ago? You come here now to tell me he is dead? I have been begging for help for this long and now you come? Get out, because I don’t want to see you,‘” she recalled.
CBC News has spoken to more than a dozen RCMP members and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and occupational stress injuries, as well as three spouses who have lost their husbands to suicide.
Spiralled into depression
During a call to a rowdy house party in Roblin three years ago, Gulay was covered in blood after a man who had hepatitis C was thrown through a plate glass window.
“This kid was crazy and blood got sprayed everywhere, and he was sliced and he was bleeding profusely,” Perchaluk said.
She said her husband spiralled into depression, drank excessively and abused prescription drugs as he waited for test results to see if he had contracted the virus.
“He would go to bed at night and wake up screaming because there was blood everywhere,” she said. “Those six months of waiting were hell.”
The RCMP failed to co-ordinate her husband’s recovery, said Perchaluk, adding that the force did not listen to her despite her increasingly desperate contacts with the detachment, his doctors and with headquarters.
“He may come into your office and say everything is fine. But look, I've changed his sheets every night because he’s passed out with a drink in his hand,” she said.
Services not provided to families
The RCMP would not comment on specific cases, but Assistant Commissioner Gilles Moreau said the police force does not provide direct services such as therapy to families.
“It's up to the member to decide, 'Yes, I'll go see this person,'” Moreau said.
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“It is a phone call away. We have access to the [employee assistance program] services from Health Canada.”
Perchaluk said that in Gulay’s case, he was too distraught and on too much medication to know what he needed. She said the RCMP did not listen to what she said was happening at home.
Moreau said it’s also the responsibility of the detachment commander to look at the situation and monitor the member to ensure he or she is using the services that are available.
Perchaluk said she believes that in her husband’s case, members of his detachment wouldn’t admit how troubled he was.
“There is no support at work,” she said. “No one wants to dirty their hands with another member's issues.”
Gulay resigned from the force in July 2013 and took his life less than a month later.
Stigma in the ranks
CBC News has obtained statistics from Veterans Affairs Canada that show the number of RCMP members and veterans receiving disability pensions because of mental illness has almost doubled in the last five years.
Almost three-quarters of those cases are due to PTSD.
Experts told CBC News the RCMP needs to change its culture in order to properly assess injured members, reduce stigma and get members the help they need.
Dr. Mike Webster, a clinical psychologist who has counselled RCMP members suffering from occupational traumatic stress injuries, said that with proper after-care, the traumatized members can return to work.
However, Webster said, that doesn’t happen regularly in the RCMP.
“If the member is exposed to a traumatic event on the job and now the employer treats the member in a caring and supportive way, that will trigger their resilience,” he said.
“If the employer responds in an antagonistic, combative or in a hostile manner, then this tends to exacerbate this individual’s problems.”
Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin authored a study last year called “In the Line of Fire,” looking at how the Ontario Provincial Police dealt with traumatized members.
His report was critical of the OPP’s handling of occupational stress injuries.
Marin said the RCMP needs to reduce the stigma of occupational stress injuries from the top down.
“The first thing to do is to denounce the culture that they are superheroes … and anyone who suffers from an operational stress injury is a wimp or a coward," he said.
“Our conclusion of the investigation was police services find themselves where the military was 15, 20 years ago — in not accepting operational stress injury as a valid injury that's caused by their job.” he added.
Too little, too late?
The RCMP's Moreau argued that the stigma of mental illness among the force's ranks is diminishing, which allows more people to access health services, and that could explain the increased number of members on disability.
“That's what we want. If you need help, use it, it's there.” he said.
“Being able to come out and say ‘I need help’ is the key thing to making sure that we keep a healthy workplace.”
Perchaluk said her husband attempted suicide twice in the years following his exposure to hepatitis C-tainted blood.
The RCMP knew how sick he was, but they wouldn’t intervene, she added.
Perchaluk said their marriage was dissolving and the two were going through a messy separation at the time of his suicide.
Citing confidentiality, the RCMP said it does not track suicides among its ranks, nor does it track how many members are on long-term stress leave.
One of the recommendations from Marin’s report is that police organizations should track suicides and cases of occupational stress injuries in order to fully understand the scope of the problem.
“If you don't track it, it's easy to pretend it doesn't exist,” Marin said.
Police force is changing
Moreau said the RCMP are looking at strengthening existing programs, and there is a strong leadership commitment to addressing mental health issues.
Moreau said he welcomes all members and their families to come forward and tell their stories.
“We're police officers and we're supposed to be tough and all this, but we are human beings,” he said.
“We haven't completely changed our culture, but I can tell you that it is changing and it is evolving.”
The RCMP are investigating Gulay’s suicide. In an emailed statement, officials said one member suicide is one case too many.
Perchaluk said she doesn’t want occupational stress injury to destroy another RCMP family.
“If I could save a marriage, a life — if it’s the only good thing I do in my life, I'll be happy. “ she said.