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PTSD Among First Responders: The Silent Plague

Earlier this month a veteran RCMP officer named Ron Francis committed suicide. A known sufferer of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), Francis tragically became the 32nd RCMP officer in under ten years to take their own life. Francis, who was prescribed medical cannabis for the treatment of his PTSD, had his uniform taken away after smoking the drug on the job in an attempt to bring awareness to the issue- something which many suggest ultimately led to his final breakdown.

Although the media’s initial reaction to the death of Ron Francis was largely concerned with his marijuana use and its related scandalous fallout, a heartfelt plea by Francis’ long time friend and lawyer T.J Burke quickly shifted the course of the conversation. “Ronnie’s whole goal was never smoking marijuana, it was about bringing to light that the RCMP was not providing adequate services to its officers that suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.”, said Burke.

This unfortunate saga, although tragic, has brought considerable attention to the issue of mental health among first responders. With numerous articles, editorials and rebuttals discussing the current state of our RCMP mental health program, the public conversation is indeed heating up. Until now, the majority of discussion regarding PTSD has involved the military. However, with a slew of recent suicides, coupled with an explosion of diagnoses in our police forces, the spotlight has broadened considerably. After reviewing the statistics, it becomes clear that this renewed public interest could not have come soon enough.

From the years of 1989 to 2012, more Ontario Provincial Police officers died from mental health-related suicide than in active duty, for a total of 23. As one psychiatrist specializing in PTSD research and treatment noted: “PTSD and depression and those types of operational stress injuries are actually more dangerous to an officer’s life than the criminals out there. That’s an important piece that no one seems to talk about.”

One of the most serious criticisms of the current mental health system in place for the RCMP is that there is no independent budget attached. Some say that this amounts to a serious misallocation of funds- it certainly appears bizarre when one considers the personal and financial harm caused by these occupational disorders if left untreated. “Unfortunately, some police services…have misjudged their priorities. For some, it’s more important to get the latest gadgets, the toys for boys, rather than addressing the issue of mental illness.” says Ontario ombudsman, Andre Marin. This is not to say that treatment is not currently available if needed, but it is now clear that the availability of treatment alone is not enough to prevent the unfortunate consequences of PTSD and other related disorders. More focus needs to be put on combatting the prevalent taboo that still exists regarding these disorders and their associated treatments if real progress is to be made. Within first-responder professions, there is still a great deal of stigma involving psychiatric treatment; seeking help needs to be seen as a victory rather than a weakness, necessitating an entire cultural paradigm shift.

Of course the issue of stress disorders among first responders is just a microcosm of a much larger debate. Our society is still all too squeamish about issues of mental health, something that can be isolating and harmful to those who are suffering in silence. Hopefully the recent surge in public interest in PTSD and its prevalence among police services will act as a catalyst for greater change. The unfortunate story of Ron Francis has also caused many to look at his achievements both as a long-serving RCMP officer and as a member of the community, indicating to many that people suffering from mental illness are real people who can be capable of outstanding, unselfish public service. As Gabriel Atwin, a Chief of the local First Nations community of which Francis was a member, remarked “Most importantly, to the youth in our community, Ron was a role model. He proved that it was not impossible to rise above the challenges and roadblocks that face our youth.

– David Hughes

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