'Who do you tell?': Former Mounties say shop talk, a listening ear critical to dealing with dark memories

The Atlas Institute for Veterans and Families, funded by Veterans Affairs Canada, launched a digital mental health awareness campaign about PTSD this week to highlight the challenges faced by Canadian Armed Forces members, RCMP members and their families.

National PTSD awareness campaign shares stories of former CAF members, RCMP officers

Former RCMP officers Jim Wong, left, and Ross MacInnes are sharing their stories experiencing post-traumatic stress as part of a mental health awareness campaign run by the Atlas Institute. (Submitted by Jim Wong and Ross MacInnes)

WARNING: Some readers may find details of this story disturbing

A Tim Horton's coffee shop, a few police officers on break — language and emotions still raw from a difficult call.

That was old-school therapy. 

But, scared the public will think they're "sloughing off or that they're being lazy," many officers don't meet like that anymore, says retired RCMP and Calgary police officer Ross MacInnes. 

MacInnes is speaking up as part of a new national PTSD awareness effort for veterans. He says those conversations over a cup of coffee are exactly the kind of open listening members need to deal with the stress of the job; an antidote to secondary trauma and PTSD.

"They're debriefing each other, but they're doing it in a coffee shop without outside, I'll call it outside experts," he said. 

"They would just talk themselves or talk each other through it."

When MacInnes was working, one call in particular stuck with him. It involved the deaths of several children, and he was the one who pulled two of their bodies from a river. He couldn't revive them.

After the incident, he went into operational mode. He filed his reports, spoke with the appropriate detectives and tried to keep his emotions in check. 

That meant the stress just built. Eventually, he found the space to finally talk through the trauma of it. Then, it was with a group of civilian friends who he'd have breakfast with once a month.

"They were the ones that I told [about] the emotional side of it," he said.

"When you go through it, you don't even realize the impact it makes until later and that adrenaline comes down … I think the challenge for anybody that's gone through a traumatic incident is who do you tell and will they listen?" 

Ross MacInnes is pictured with his wife, Dee, on their wedding day in 1966. (Submitted by Ross MacInnes)

The mental health awareness campaign is by the Atlas Institute for Veterans and Families — a PTSD research and resource organization funded by Veterans Affairs Canada. The campaign launched this week.

The campaign — called "we don't see what they see" — is running in conjunction with PTSD Awareness Month, which happens in June, but it will continue for several more months in order to keep a spotlight on the challenges faced by Canadian Armed Forces members, RCMP members and their families.

More than a dozen military and police veterans told their stories online to bring awareness to the issue.

"We want to really acknowledge and validate their lived experience and their feelings that they've had as a result of their service," said Fardous Hosseiny, president and CEO of the Atlas Institute, adding roughly one in four veterans experiences mental health problems.

That number grows even higher when including their family members, he said. The group is urging those interested in learning more to visit their web page for resources developed specifically for veterans and their loved ones.

"The takeaway from all these stories is that these individuals are now in a place where they're managing their mental health problems," Hosseiny said.

'You didn't seek help'

Retired staff Sgt. Jim Wong says many officers don't realize what the stress and unaddressed trauma is doing in their lives. That was his story.

Wong spent about four decades working as an RCMP officer in central and southern Alberta. He rose up through the ranks, moving from posting to posting and eventually landed the role of supervisor.

But while his work achievements continued to grow, his family life worsened. He and his wife separated, and for a while, he went to a dark place, wondering how he would continue to play a role in the lives of his two sons.

Retired staff Sgt. Jim Wong spent about four decades with the RCMP in central and southern Alberta. (Submitted by Jim Wong)

He got in touch with an old supervisor and mentor, who suggested Wong see his psychologist. Wong said he was shocked to learn that his well-respected colleague had asked for help. 

"You didn't speak about it. You didn't seek help. It was a sign of weakness," Wong said in an interview on the Calgary Eyeopener.

"People were left to kind of suffer in silence and deal with the situation."

He complied with his mentor's request, and after a few sessions, he realized what was happening to him. He'd witnessed horrible crimes throughout his career, including the deaths of young people, and it had taken a toll on his mental health and his personal life.

"With help from a psychologist, I was able to overcome a lot of the post-traumatic stress," he said.

"Most of the women and men that work in that profession, you're affected one way or the other or sooner or later you are going to face those situations."

Years on, Wong wonders what hearing the stories shared as part of the Atlas Institute campaign could've meant for some of his colleagues.

"We've seen the tragedies out of it for the families, for the person themselves, for the members themselves that have to deal with this, and I've lost friends to that," he said. 

"Don't suffer in silence. Just make the phone call … get yourself back on track, and then everything else will fall into place."

Ross MacInnes is a former RCMP officer as well as a former Calgary police officer. He now runs a ranch in Millarville, Alta., for people who've experienced trauma. (Higher Trails website)

MacInnes is also trying to raise awareness of the prevalence of PTSD among former officers.

He recently wrote a book about his experiences called Shadows Come At Midnight: From PTSD to Purpose, and shortly after retiring about 20 years ago, he opened a ranch called Higher Trails in Millarville, Alta., about an hour southwest of Calgary, where people who've experienced trauma can go and recover. 

There are dozens of horses, cats and dogs on the property along with many activities, but the most important thing they offer, MacInnes said, is a listening ear. 

"We get probably as much out of it as anybody else," said MacInnes, referring to him and his wife of more than 50 years, Dee.

"We really feel strongly … we're here for a purpose. We didn't go through all this stuff for nothing."

How to get help

Here are some places where you can get help and support (list provided by the Atlas Institute). If you are dealing with an emergency, please call 911.

With files from Elise Stolte and Jennifer D'Orozio