Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

He's the 'poster boy' for PTSD, but Halifax police chief is now accused of hypocrisy

Jean-Michel Blais has spoken about his own PTSD. But now some officers with Halifax Regional Police are openly criticizing their chief, saying they feel “discarded” by the force after their own post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses.

Jean-Michel Blais, who has spoken about his own mental health issues, criticized by some of his officers

Halifax police Chief Jean-Michel Blais, who has spoken publicly about his struggles with PTSD, is under fire for doing too little to support some members who are struggling with the same diagnosis. (CBC)

Halifax police Chief Jean-Michel Blais has called himself the "poster boy" for living with PTSD, describing the trauma of serving three UN tours in Haiti and his desire to become a leader in changing attitudes about mental health.

But for some within his own force, that story is wearing thin.

Those members are now openly criticizing Halifax's top cop, accusing him of hypocrisy when it comes to his own officers who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after Blais refused to approve some expensive treatments on the department's dime.

As a second Halifax Regional Police officer comes forward, saying she "feels discarded" and "completely abandoned" by her chief, Blais is being forced to defend his own conduct and that of his department in helping those with PTSD.

In an interview, Blais acknowledged unhappiness within the ranks. But he also called PTSD the "flavour of the day" that can overshadow other mental illnesses officers may suffer that are unrelated to their jobs.

He also suggests those with PTSD shouldn't blame him when they don't get "Cadillac" treatment the police department can't afford, and that some of the onus falls to officers to take care of themselves and "get going."

Det. Const. Debbie Carleton has been with Halifax Regional Police for nearly 23 years. (Contributed)

Debbie Carleton, a detective constable with almost 23 years of service, is the most recent officer to publicly voice concerns about her treatment. 

She said the chief will not sign off on further PTSD treatment for her. Halifax Regional Police do not come under the Workers' Compensation Board of Nova Scotia and are instead "self-insured."

Carleton has filed a complaint with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, alleging discrimination based on her diagnosis. 

She is at least the second Halifax officer with PTSD to do so. Last month, Const. Mark Long came forward publicly, saying he too was denied specialized care by the department. 

Carleton, who started as a patrol officer in 1995, said she has witnessed more than her share of horror, working undercover as a prostitute, investigating child pornography, human trafficking and other serious crimes.

In June 2015, at the urging of a retired officer, she visited a doctor and was diagnosed with PTSD. She went on paid leave.

"As soon as I close my eyes at night, I experience nightmares," she told CBC News. "It's nothing for me to get up at least three or four times during the night from the nightmares and just be completely soaked from the combative dreams."

Carleton was diagnosed with PTSD in 2015. (CBC)

PTSD was a hard pill for her to swallow. Carleton said she has always taken pride in her work, represented Halifax Regional Police at official events, been emotionally and physically strong, and never abused sick time.

"There is still a huge stigma of coming forward to say that you have PTSD because you feel broken, ashamed, especially as a female going through years and years of trying to prove yourself to men that you can handle the job."

Urgent situation

In August 2016, she asked a friend at the department to come to her home and collect her gun because she wanted to kill herself.

Two months later, a doctor, two psychologists and a psychiatrist were so concerned about her wellbeing they urged the department to send her for inpatient care at a PTSD-treatment facility in Ontario.

It was only in January 2017, following nine phone calls, faxes and voicemails from her psychologist, that the department approved funding of approximately $1,000 a day. Carleton was sent to Ontario for two months, a stay that was extended by two weeks on the advice of doctors there.

When she returned to Halifax, her health worsened and she attempted suicide. Her psychologist contacted Halifax Regional Police four times, outlining Carleton's deteriorating condition and the "urgency" of additional inpatient care.

Carleton (right) is seen marching in a Pride parade. (Heather Surette)

Halifax Regional Police refused, at one point saying it was not legally or contractually obligated to pay for out-of-province care, suggesting Carleton may be required to foot the bill because she was still on full salary.

Her union has filed a grievance.

"We need to do all we can to make them better," said Halifax Regional Police Association president Mark Hartlen. "Why do we have a problem dealing with mental illness?"

Union members have the impression they're being left to their own devices and that money concerns are getting in the way of treatment, said Hartlen.

Both he and Carleton said they are disappointed in Blais, who has spoken publicly many times since 2015 about his own diagnosis and the need to encourage officers to come forward and seek help.

Blais spoke about his PTSD diagnosis in 2015. He said walking his two dogs helps bring him peace. (CBC)

The former RCMP officer first worked in Haiti in 1995 as part of a United Nations mission.

During three tours, he witnessed violent rioting and numerous hurricanes. In one case, he said in a 2015 interview, he ordered the body of a victim be cut in half so a young girl could be pulled alive from the rubble of a collapsed school.

He said Haiti's 2010 earthquake haunted him after his return to Canada. What followed were anxiety attacks, problems sleeping, nightmares and intrusive thoughts that took over his mind day and night.

Const. Mark Long has also filed a human rights complaint against Halifax Regional Police. (Dalhousie University)

Blais left the RCMP in 2012 and became Halifax's chief.

He now says he knew when he disclosed his own PTSD diagnosis that he would be held to a higher standard, that there would be an expectation he would "be ready, willing and do anything I could do to help people."

Blais said he does that. But there are also limits on how much the department can spend.

"When I'm not able to do what they want me to do, then they tend to blame it on hypocrisy as opposed to realizing that there are constraints within the system," he said.

Blais said in a larger sense, the discussion is not just about PTSD, but the whole issue of mental health injuries. "PTSD tends to be the flavour of the day as opposed to looking at mental health of employees overall."

Blais in 2015. (CBC)

Blais said his officers are "treated very well" and he doesn't want them to have the impression that "if you're injured, mentally or physically, you're left on off on your own."

"If you can't get the Cadillac treatment, then what's the next-best option that is there and you have to look at going there," he said.

"Do we just blame other people, do we look at them and just pass judgement on them simply because our expectations weren't met? Or, do we be honest enough with ourselves and say, 'I'm going to take care of myself and get going?'"

'It's shocking to me'

Hartlen, the police union president, said the chief "has inserted himself" into discussions about members' health in talks with medical practitioners. 

Documents show the chief was actively involved in conference calls and discussions concerning Carleton's care.

But Blais said it is "completely false" that he questioned medical professionals about their diagnoses.

Carleton said until her recommended care was rejected by the department, she fully supported the chief and his public vision for the force.

"It's shocking to me that he appears to be saying one thing and doing another. I don't think it's right on any level," she said.

"It's not just a job you go to. It becomes part of your life and if anything, I would expect other officers would have my back. Especially the chief."