Psychiatrist says PTSD treatment for Mounties improving, but not fast enough

Help for RCMP officers who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder is improving, but Dr. Mark Johnston is urging the force to move more quickly to implement its 2014 mental health strategy.

'PTSD is going to be quite widespread within the RCMP and other first-responder organizations'

Psychiatrist Mark Johnston wants to see the RCMP collaborate with the military, which encountered and recognized PTSD earlier and offers better supports. (Chris Stanford/Canadian Press)

Help for RCMP officers who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder is improving, but Mark Johnston is urging the force to move more quickly to implement its 2014 mental health strategy.

Johnston, a Nova Scotia psychiatrist who treats police officers and military members in his private practice, said the biggest challenge for an RCMP officer suffering with PTSD is having it recognized.

"It's a bit hit or miss right now," Johnston told Information Morning Moncton.

It's not a physical injury and so sometimes superiors might not fully appreciate what's going on with the patient because they can't see it.- Dr. Mark Johnston, psychiatrist

"Sometimes I'll deal with a member who has phenomenal support from his chain of command ... the next fellow that I meet might say, 'They're harassing me, they don't believe that I have a problem, they're checking up on me all the time.'"

Johnston, who practises in Kentville and Halifax, has developed expertise in treating the disorder over more than 13 years of working with the military, including veterans making the transition to civilian life.

His comments come after Mark Clements, a retired RCMP officer in Moncton who has PTSD, was initially told he couldn't receive his 25-year service medal unless he attended an awards ceremony.

The New Brunswick RCMP eventually reversed its decision and agreed to send the medal to Clements, but Clements said the force shouldn't have made it so difficult for him in the first place.

Widespread among first responders

Johnston stressed that support is available through both the public mental health system and from private practitioners once officers are diagnosed.

"We have to expect that PTSD is going to be quite widespread within the RCMP and other first-responder organizations."

Johnston said the RCMP now has a policy that recognizes that PTSD exists, something he calls "a huge step forward" from where things used to be.

But he said the disorder is still difficult to recognize and diagnose, and everyone in the force must agree if change is to occur.

Psychiatrist Dr. Mark Johnston said changing "the hearts and minds" of those who work in all levels of the RCMP when it comes to recognising and treating PTSD will take time. (True North Clinical Research)
"It won't help if the very top echelon says, 'Sure, PTSD exists,' but then all the mid-level folks say, 'Well, not with this guy. This guy doesn't have PTSD — I've decided this person isn't sick.'"

Johnston said he has seen senior officers who believe they are qualified to diagnose PTSD.

"It's not a physical injury and so sometimes superiors might not fully appreciate what's going on with the patient because they can't see it ... it's hard to miss a broken leg but with PTSD in some ways it can be hidden," Johnston said.

In an emailed statement, the RCMP said it offers several services to help employees suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues.

"Services include employee assistance services, a peer-to-peer system, health assessments, psychological services, critical incident stress debriefings, mental health training, disability management, supplemental health benefits," the statement said.

The RCMP is also working on offering both classroom and online suicide prevention training for employees who are likely to encounter individuals living with serious mental stress.

Help is available

He said once RCMP officers have retired from the force, many don't realize they can apply to the Department of Veterans Affairs Canada for more assistance.

In a statement, the RCMP said retired RCMP members who receive a Veterans Affairs Canada disability pension may be eligible for additional services.

Johnston said the private mental health system is not as stretched as the public system, an issue at the centre of discussions after veteran Lionel Desmond, who served in Afghanistan and had PTSD, allegedly shot his wife, child and mother in Big Tracadie, N.S., before killing himself.

​"I think about this tragedy that happened up in Tracadie a couple of weeks ago and I really worry that a lot of patients don't understand that they have access to both mental health systems," Johnston said, referring to the private psychological help that's available in addition to the public system.

He said RCMP are generally referred to private mental health practitioners. 

RCMP makes progress, but it's slow

While he believes the RCMP is making progress and improving treatment for members, Johnston doesn't think it has happened quickly enough since the force adopted a mental health strategy in 2014.

"I'm optimistic that things are changing," he said. "I just wish they'd speed it up. I wish they'd make more of an effort to make it happen faster because right now people are suffering.

"I think they could make a lot of those changes much sooner if they wanted to."

Johnston wants to see the police force collaborate with the military, which encountered and recognized PTSD earlier and offers better supports.

"The RCMP started this journey a lot later than these other groups and I think that's a big problem.," Johnston said.

Johnston said changing "the hearts and minds" of those who work in all levels of the RCMP will take time and he hopes the force won't be sidetracked by the added cost of treatment.

"It's [can be] so upsetting to those decision makers that they lose sight of the fact that the patient is ultimately ill and they got sick from something that happened on the job, and they need to be taken care of."

With files from Information Morning Moncton