High-profile B.C. Mountie with PTSD says support system is 'broken' and 'in crisis'
'First responders are committing suicide,' and that's an election issue, says Staff Sgt. Jennifer Pound
For six years, she was the public face of Metro Vancouver's integrated homicide investigation team (IHIT), delivering bad news to British Columbians at the height of the province's murderous gang wars.
Now, RCMP Staff Sgt. Jennifer Pound has emerged as the face of post-traumatic stress disorder, two years after mysteriously vanishing from the spotlight.
She says firsthand experience has shown her the support system for Mounties with PTSD is "broken" and has to be rebuilt from the ground up.
"I can absolutely say that we are in crisis, and it's only going to get worse," said Pound, 46. "We can see that the crisis we're in is exploding."
The 22-year veteran of the RCMP says she's sharing her story because she hopes to make funding for PTSD treatment a federal election issue in the final days of the campaign.
'I was ... falling into the abyss'
Pound says she first realized there was something wrong when she fell ill May 1, 2017.
"I was not able to get out of bed," said Pound. "I just felt like it was spiralling, and every day was not getting better. I was kind of falling into the abyss."
She says she was diagnosed with PTSD— not from dealing with the relentless body count, 300 homicides by her estimate since she joined IHIT in 2011— but from the emotional toll of trying to comfort families of victims behind the scenes.
"I started to absorb the darkness and the pain and the tragedy," said Pound. "That, to me, is where I noticed my resiliency and that my guard was just not there anymore."
'An incredible struggle'
Her mental state started to take a toll on her husband, who's also an RCMP member, and her four children — something she has difficulty talking about.
"Having PTSD ... has been an incredible struggle," said Pound, her voice catching. "My family is affected. My kids are affected ... you're in the face of it every single day."
But instead of getting immediate help from the RCMP, Pound says, she had to fend for herself for six months— searching to find a PTSD therapist on her own— because she "never received anything from RCMP Health Services to suggest therapy or a course of action."
When she was finally directed to the force's Occupational Stress Injury clinic, she found there was a 12-month waiting list.
"It really just compounded and exacerbated my own injury," said Pound. "So, falling further into the dark for me."
She says she finally started to get the help she needed in mid-April, almost two years after she took sick leave.
Despite the prolonged wait, Pound says, she has been pressured by the force to return to work or be pensioned out. She remains a Mountie, with the status "Off Duty, Sick."
"You can't say to somebody, 'You have to get better in two years,'" Pound said. "I understand that two years does seem like a long time — if you're getting the treatment you need from the beginning."
Jennifer Pound explains why Canadians need to care about struggling Mounties:
'First responders are committing suicide'
The former RCMP spokesperson believes she's not alone.
Pound says the force has been good at removing the stigma of PTSD, but that's meant more members are coming forward seeking help — and hitting growing lineups.
"Our first responders are committing suicide, and that's because there is no help for them," said Pound. "We can't let any more first responders go without help. It's just going to end in complete tragedy."
For some, it has.
The latest numbers supplied by the RCMP show 12 members and 10 retirees have taken their lives in the past five years.
Pound says the public deserves to be protected by healthy members, not walking wounded who might skip treatment because of delays.
"You cannot be having first responders that are injured, going out and trying to protect the public," she said.
Action plan 'vital:' Ralph Goodale
The federal government and the RCMP have repeatedly promised to do a better job of addressing post-traumatic stress, announcing new programs in the past 18 months.
The 2018 federal budget set aside $21.4 million over five years, starting in 2018-19, to support the mental health needs of RCMP officers.
Then in March 2019, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced an "Action Plan on Post-Traumatic Stress Injuries," saying it was "vital" that Canada do a better job.
But most of the $20 million was for studies and research — not treatment for those suffering from occupational stress injuries.
Contacted by CBC News, the RCMP said $2 million has been spent on the first phase of a PTSD study.
Public Safety says just under $11 million will go toward assessing Mounties for PTSD every three years, starting in April 2020.
It also says 50 per cent of clients referred to Operational Stress Injury clinics, including RCMP members, "receive an appointment with a psychiatrist in two months ... 90 per cent within six months."
'Walk the walk'
Pound says that wasn't her experience, but admits when she was on duty she believed there was adequate help available.
Before she took stress leave, the RCMP asked her to be an ambassador for its "Road to Mental Readiness" program, and she readily agreed.
Pound says she encouraged fellow members to come forward if they felt they were suffering from PTSD, then walked away convinced she had placed them in good hands.
"I think people are thinking that we're doing a great job. And in fairness, I thought the same thing," said Pound. "But it took me having to come over to this side to be sick, to be injured and not get the help that I needed, to really, really understand how broken the system is."
To help her cope, she has started her own blog to reach out to other struggling first responders.
Pound is calling on the federal government to do much more.
"We need money to go towards resources," she said. "There needs to be more support. That means doctors, therapists, psychologists, so we're not backlogged.
"If you're going to talk the talk you have to walk the walk. It can't just be words anymore."
Pound says fixing the problem will take a huge effort — and buy-in from top brass:
'We need to do better'
Pound knows her outspokenness could work against her. But she says she can no longer remain silent.
And she still hopes one day to return to work serving the public as a Mountie.
"My loyalty is to the RCMP and to the fantastic people that I worked with for the last couple of decades," Pound said. "So, I place more value on creating positive change than I do worrying about what could possibly happen to me.
"Moving forward, we need to do better."
With files from Dan Burritt