British Columbia

Witness demands answers, calls for better mental health support following Saanich bank robbery

The fallout from a bank robbery in Saanich, B.C., has revealed some of the gaps in support for people who have witnessed a crime in the province.

'It's hard. I am not really recovering,' says Shelli Fryer

Shelli Fryer, 59, speaks on Wednesday in her Langford, B.C. home about the enduring impacts of being trapped inside a Bank of Montreal branch in Saanich, B.C. during a shootout between would-be bank robbers and police a day earlier. The incident left six officers wounded, to suspects dead, and witnesses like Fryer reeling from the traumatic events.
Shelli Fryer, 59, says the supports for people who are victims of crime, or who witness them, are lacking. (CBC News)

Shelli Fryer has spent the past six weeks feeling worried, isolated and overwhelmed. 

She was held hostage during a bank robbery in Saanich, B.C., on June 28. Since then, she's struggled to find the emotional support needed to work through her trauma. 

"It's hard. I am not really recovering," she said. 

Fryer was sitting down for a meeting with the bank manager that day when she looked over and saw a man standing outside the door with a firearm. 

She watched as the robbery took place, discreetly calling 911 on her cellphone from the manager's office.

A shootout with police followed, in which the two suspects were killed and six police officers were shot. 

Hostage recounts B.C. bank robbery turned shootout

5 months ago
Duration 2:38
A woman held hostage during an armed robbery turned shootout in Saanich, B.C., describes what happened inside the bank.

Police have offered little insight into what exactly transpired that day, and Fryer says she wants answers. 

In an email, Saanich RCMP Cpl. Alex Bérubé said that while the police understand the desire for information, sharing details at this stage could jeopardize the investigation. 

"Investigators are working diligently to explore theories, uncover physical and digital evidence and conduct multiple interviews to establish a timeline of what exactly took place," Bérubé said.

"Due to the complexity of the investigation, it is important to preserve its integrity — especially while there is a concurrent investigation being conducted by the [Independent Investigations Office of B.C.]."

Lack of support

Ever since the robbery, Fryer has wondered, "Did I help? Was that just the riskiest decision I ever made? Should I just have followed everybody else? Just stood with everybody else, not taken a chance and let the silent alarm do its trick.

"People have accused me that making a 911 call was risky and reckless and that I'm actually responsible for the officers being injured by doing that," she said.

Police officers stand at the scene of a bank robbery and shootout in Saanich, B.C. The two suspects were killed and six officers were shot. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

Fryer was given pamphlets with information about care options through Greater Victoria Police Victim Services, a local organization that offers victims support by helping with applications for further assistance and making referrals to other programs, such as the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre and domestic violence services. They do not directly connect people with therapists.

"Finding a therapist is a joint effort between the client and therapist," a spokesperson said in an email. 

"The relationship is based on the skill set of the therapist and the unique needs of the client. There is no way for victim services to make that assessment." 

Fryer said she's had phone calls from staff members at victim services, checking in to see if she's received the help she needs, but it hasn't been enough to help her through. 

One of the programs victim services connects people with is the Crime Victim Assistance Program, a provincial service that offers financial support, including covering the cost of counselling.

However, until Fryer's claim with the victim assistance program is accepted, she worries she'll be paying out of pocket.

Registered clinical counsellor John Scheunhage says the victim assistance program doesn't connect victims with counsellors either.

"They kind of say, just go and find someone," Scheunhage said, adding that counsellors have to be approved by the victim assistance program in order for victims to be reimbursed. 

"It really does fall back to the victim themselves." 

Fryer called 11 counsellors before she found someone who had room for her in their schedule and who felt they could help her work through her trauma. Fryer said she spoke with them at the end of July, and they agreed to take her on as a patient. 

In an emailed statement, the Bank of Montreal said professional counselling services have been offered to staff working at the Saanich branch on the day of the robbery as well as to customers who had booked appointments that day. 

But Fryer said she hasn't heard anything from the bank about support.

One suggestion from the victim assistance program, Fryer said, was to see her family doctor. 

"Well I don't have a family doctor, so that's out."

Tips for recovery

Scheunhage said it's completely natural for people who have experienced or witnessed trauma to feel the way Fryer does for at least 30 days — in fact, he said, post-traumatic stress disorder won't be diagnosed until after that. 

He also said the reaction and the struggle Fryer is facing is expected, given the circumstances. 

"Her instinct is bang on, her brain is working perfectly right now," he said.

However, he said there are some things people can do to manage their struggles while waiting to see a therapist. 

The first, he said, is education. 

"I find clients love getting more pages to their owner's manual for their brain," he said. 

"Trauma wakes us up to parts of our brain we did not know were there."

He said simply Googling information about the brain and trauma should help provide some insight. 

Scheunhage also suggests connection with loved ones, people and animals as a way to return to simple actions of daily life and try to return to the present moment, rather than staying stuck in the traumatic. 

He also suggests writing things down in order to externalize that trauma, and physical exercise to keep the body and mind moving forward. 

Kathryn Marlow spoke CBC's Adam van der Zwan about Shelli Fryer, a retiree from Langford who says the aftermath of the Saanich bank robbery has left her struggling.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Courtney Dickson

Broadcast and Digital Journalist

Courtney Dickson is a journalist working in Vancouver, B.C. Email her at courtney.dickson@cbc.ca with story tips.

now