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Family members want RCMP to do more for officers with post-traumatic stress

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

VANCOUVER - Krista Bouchard was married to a Mountie for 13 years — a quirky, funny, chatty guy she'd met on a blind date.

Thirty-year-old Martin Bouchard was an RCMP officer in Manitoba and had a French accent and plenty of friends.

But three years into the marriage, Krista Bouchard started noticing symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder — apparently related to her husband's posting in Shamattawa, a First Nations reserve that she said was resistant to outside policing.

"He'd show up at a call and end up having an axe thrown from the roof of a house at him," Krista Bouchard, 38, said.

But most traumatic for her husband were the suicides. There were calls that changed her husband life forever.

"The biggest thing was the hangers, they called them. They were cutting people out of the trees weekly for attempted suicides and suicides," she said.

Suddenly her husband was constantly negative, alienating friends and being confrontational at work — a change in behaviour she would have never predicted when the pair exchanged vows.

"He was so proud to be an RCMP member, yet he was always looking for the negative," Bouchard said. "It felt like he was always in a battle with somebody."

Over the next decade of his RCMP career, Bouchard said her husband became increasingly hostile towards her and their two daughters, to the point she feared for their safety and the couple separated.

Martin Bouchard continued working as a Mountie despite being diagnosed with depression and PTSD.

On Nov. 8, 2012, just four days after handing in his gun and badge, he took his own life.

Bouchard linked her husband's death to his largely untreated struggle with PTSD and believes it could have been prevented if the RCMP had helped him cope with the horrors he faced on the job.

As lawsuits emerge and claims for PTSD-related disability pensions climb, Bouchard and other spouses of current and former Mounties are asking the force to play a larger role in preventing and treating the work-related disorder.

"It's the responsibility of the employer when PTSD is a result of the job, to ensure that those members are taken care of," Bouchard said.

"They were aware (he) was diagnosed with PTSD and they never, ever, once promoted the idea of treatment for him."

While company coverage for a limited number of counselling sessions was helpful, Bouchard said her husband needed much more assistance.

Counselling didn't work for him despite visits to various therapists, Bouchard said.

"He was never getting beyond the initial six-week appointment where they finally started to delve into things."

But a national representative for the RCMP said members' physical and mental well-being is top priority.

"Work-related health issues, whether physical or mental, are taken very seriously," spokesman Greg Cox said in an email statement.

Mounties are screened for mental health issues every three years and offered treatment options, he said, adding those in high-risk duty such as undercover work or service in isolated regions receive increased focus and monitoring.

Officers showing signs of PTSD have their responsibilities "adjusted in accordance with their limitations and restrictions while supporting their treatment," Cox said.

The seeming disconnect between what the force offers and what it delivers also has another spouse puzzled.

The woman, whose husband is currently on sick leave for PTSD-related issues, agreed to be interviewed upon the condition of anonymity.

She said she doesn't want to jeopardize her husband's career because he's in the process of going back to work.

"There's a fear that we'll be penalized because we're speaking out," the Alberta resident said.

She said her husband has been dealing with PTSD since a traumatic event early in his career, and that it's been compounded by many more incidents since then.

"He's been to more deaths of children than I can count. They've had shifts where they've had six bodies in six days and they haven't had any debriefing," she said.

"I can't count the suicides, I can't count the violent assaults and murders. We're not talking one car accident, we're talking multitudes."

While not all detachments are remiss in providing their members with treatment and debriefing, the woman said the force lacks resources and communication between departments, particularly in isolated areas.

"They're not being debriefed after every critical incident because there's not the manpower to go down every single day."

She said RCMP health services might diagnose a member and tell the detachment there's an underlying medical condition affecting the officer's performance.

But detachment commanders essentially assume that officers left on duty are full acting members and there's nothing put into place to support them, she said.

The woman said her husband's strange behaviour led her to believe he had PTSD.

"He numbed out ... I came home one day to pick something up from work and he was on a day off. He was standing near the kitchen sink.

"I came home three hours later and he was still standing there and couldn't tell me why."

She said that while her husband's detachment failed to acknowledge his illness and provide help, that might not be the case for the entire force.

"We're not trying to damage the RCMP," she said. "What we're trying to do is say, 'This a job that has inherent dangers.'"

"My husband wears a bulletproof vest and he carries a gun to protect his physical safety. I'm just asking them to give him some things ... that are going to protect (his) mental safety as well."

But the tools to ward off PTSD are a ways off, said Dr. William Koch, a B.C. clinical and forensic psychologist who specializes in treating trauma survivors, including Mounties.

Despite families' pleas for help, Koch said large employers such as the RCMP can be slow in implementing policy changes.

"They're kind of like a large tanker ship that's very hard to turn out in open water," Koch said.

People who avoid coping with their feelings are most at risk of developing the disorder, and that's a dangerous combination for officers who don't discuss their trials for fear of stigma within the organization, he added.

Koch said counselling that involves a member sharing his woes isn't effective and has proven worse in clinical trials than no treatment at all.

First responders who experience trauma react best to cognitive behavioural therapy, Koch said.

The treatment, over a period of weeks, involves officers reliving traumatic experiences repeatedly in a controlled environment until their responses normalize and they regain a sense of safety or calm.

Koch said it's been shown 50 to 80 per cent effective in most clinical studies.

"People who receive that kind of specific treatment get substantially better. They cease to be a clinical case. They have improved functioning."

Last month, former Mountie James Ward filed a lawsuit in B.C. claiming the RCMP failed to provide adequate treatment for his work-related trauma.

Statistics from Veterans Affairs Canada show the number of disability claims for RCMP members afflicted with PTSD has doubled in the last five years.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/the-canadian-press/130521/family-members-want-rcmp-do-more-officers-post-traumatic-str