PTSD

An Analysis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Police Personnel

Things aren’t always as they seem. The people we work with aren’t always ready with a smile when passing us in the halls. Rhetorical thought: If I am in a good mood, why are you scowling at me as I pass you in the hall and say good morning?

It’s because everyone has a story. [1]

Outward appearances can be extremely deceiving. Though the person coming down the hall may seem all together on the outside, inside could be a wreck of emotions, thoughts and memories. One event that this person has experienced could have been so traumatizing, the rest of their life has been negatively affected. Similar results can occur after being exposed to an accumulation of distressing situations. Experiencing a traumatic event can lead to a prolonged state of mental distress known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This condition is a psychological reaction of “intense fear, helplessness or horror” after “experience[ing] or witness[ing] a traumatic event ‘that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury’”[2]. The effects of PTSD go so far as to disrupt the victim’s thoughts, daily activities, and ultimately their way of life. Symptoms of PSTD are flashbacks, nightmares, invasive thoughts, the avoidance of potential triggers (from avoiding conversations to people), withdrawing emotional attachment from their family or hobbies, irritability, low concentration, sleeping problems, anger issues, constant alertness, and constant distress. Certain professions and lifestyles are much more susceptible to PTSD than others. This is especially true in occupations such as policing, which deal with traumatic events on a regular basis. As police officer and PTSD survivor William (Bill) Rusk reflects, “police personnel, by the very nature of our jobs, are exposed to more stress and trauma than an average person may experience over their entire life”[3]. PTSD within policing has only recently become accepted as a work-related injury, having previously been brushed off as weakness or overworked exhaustion. However, for many years this undiagnosed disorder has damaged relationships, broken families, ruined careers and ultimately taken lives. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an occupational hazard in policing, and should be treated quickly and effectively to avoid further harm to the suffering officer and their family.
The stigma is currently being fought by Julie Adamson, in attempt to receive recognition on the Ontario Police Memorial Wall for her father, Ed Adamson. The late Sgt. Ed Adamson took his life in a motel room in October of 2005, surrounded by newspaper articles and personal notes of the incident which haunted him for over two decades. Adamson’s post-traumatic stress disorder is what pushed him to this most disastrous form of permanent escape. His true self died March 14th, 1980, “the day Toronto Const. Michael Sweet, a father of three young girls, was shot, held hostage, and allowed to bleed to death by the notorious Munro brothers during a botched robbery of George’s Bourbon St bistro at 180 Queen St. W”[7]. For the remaining 25 years of his life, Adamson’s life was in constant turmoil. As he lacked a proper support base for coping with his PTSD, Adamson sought to cope with his sorrows by worse means, eventually turning to alcoholism. His untreated disorder robbed him of a career, happy life, and of a good relationship with his family. Arguably, if Adamson had been properly diagnosed and treated, he would still be alive, with his family and in the police force today. Since Adamson’s passing, his family has fought for the Workers Safety Insurance Board (WSIB) of Ontario to recognize his death as caused by a work-related injury. When Adamson was finally granted the recognition, his family and friends felt it to be “justice at last”.[8] However, the family still awaits his acceptance onto the Ontario Police Memorial Wall. Though Ed Adamson’s case of PTSD is one of the most well-known policing instances, his was unfortunately by no means the only one subjected to ignorance and lack of support.                  Police personnel are stereotypically seen as stoic upholders of law in our society. Meant to deal with the public’s problems, often “people look at the uniform and don’t think that there’s a soft person underneath it. […] Everybody thinks they are Superman, but Superman can get weak also. There’s cryptonite.”[4]. This persona is not limited to the public’s opinion. In fact, the policing community is considered even harsher and judgemental of PTSD, making it extremely difficult for afflicted officers to open up and seek support. In a recent article in the Police Association of Ontario (PAO) Magazine, past President Larry Molyneaux admitted, “how difficult it is within our police ‘culture’ to acknowledge that our mechanisms for coping with some of the human carnage we’re exposed to are beginning to erode”[5]. Despite recent attempts in raising awareness and acceptance of PTSD, there is still a large stigma associated with the disorder. In a recent study of officers without symptoms of PTSD, 73% believed that admitting to the disorder would have a negative outcome (18% feared embarrassment, 24% feared damaged careers, 31% wished to avoid appearing ‘weak’)[6]. Evidently, awareness has therefore become a key focus with policing organizations, to reduce these barriers and get proper help to those who need it. Policing personnel need to realize that their lives hold a greater importance than their careers. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has taken the lives of too many police officers, and the stigma associated with it needs to come down.

Bill Rusk, director of the PAO, and president of the Owen Sound Police Association, is a PTSD survivor. On June 25th, 1990, during a midnight foot patrol of the notorious Jane and Finch district in Toronto, then Const. Rusk was pursuing a suspect in a foot chase when he was shot.[9] Rusk received life-threatening wounds to his face, hand, neck, shoulder and back. When told a mere four months after the incident that he would be reposted to the Jane and Finch area, Rusk quit and took a position in his hometown of Owen Sound Ontario. At that time, Chief Bill McCormack and then Superintendent Julian Fantino “blam[ed] the increasing danger facing officers on the street for Rusk’s resignation”[10].

However, it is clear in hindsight that Rusk was not given adequate time to psychologically recover, and it is now no surprise that he developed post-traumatic stress disorder soon after, though undiagnosed at the time. Evidentially, it is the lack of therapy, rather than increased crime rate that caused Rusk to leave the Metro Toronto Police. It took the next 20 years for Rusk to publicly accept his PTSD and talk about the shooting. As seen in a recent article of PAO magazine, Rusk reflected on how, “PTSD can disrupt a life, but moderate to severe PTSD can devastate a family. […] Although the majority of my physical injuries have healed over time, the psychological injuries affected my coping mechanisms, and in many ways continue to affect my daily life for better or worse. Symptoms of my disorder cost me a marriage and long-term relationship with my two oldest children”[11]. Rusk’s life was more than drastically changed by the effects of PSTD; he was given a completely different one. The disorder robbed his family of a future, and has left broken bonds with his children from that marriage. Now recovered, and as Director of the PAO, Rusk is making a huge effort to introduce legislative changes to protect future policing-induced cases of PTSD.

As Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can cause detrimental disruptions in both the officer’s home and work life, it is important they receive the appropriate benefits and coverage to ensure a quick recovery and return to normal routine. Though the need to provide swift treatment is obvious, “a significant number of PSTD claims by police personnel are initially denied by the WSIB, but are eventually accepted by the Workplace Safety & Insurance Appeals Tribunal (WSIAT). The appeal process is a lengthy one that exacerbates the patient’s stress disorder and compromises the effectiveness of treatment”[12]. It is evident that change must be made immediately to help and accommodate the growing numbers of PTSD cases, to prevent any future Adamson’s or Rusk’s. The PAO has been leading the effort in receiving suitable compensation and influencing new legislation in Queen’s Park. The PAO’s main goals in ‘obtaining presumptive coverage’ are to provide appropriate care, shorten the appeal time length, make the coverage more accessible and eliminate the workplace stigma involving PTSD.[13] However, the diagnosis and treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is often case-specific, therefore making it hard to legislate and define between who can and cannot receive coverage.
As Bruce Kruger, retired Detective Inspector of the Ontario Provincial Police believes: Awareness and coverage of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has also been a growing issue outside of Ontario. In the recent Albertan provincial election, Tory leader Alison Redford pledged to create legislation that would provide worker’s compensation to police personnel suffering from PTSD.[14] Though some may believe that police officers’ already receive compensation through their higher pay and many benefits, it is important to realize that PTSD has always existed, albeit undiagnosed, and it has only been recently that our society has become aware to the effects PTSD has in policing and that more treatment and coverage is needed to protect the officer. The real question that should be asked in this scenario is not ‘why is this happening’, but rather ‘what more can be done to prevent this’.

Citizens deserve to have a complete understanding of the extremely disheartening way police personnel are currently treated mentally, physically and financially due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as compared with members of the Canadian Armed Forces. Forces personnel receive adequate compensation, have the OSISS program in place for self and family support and protocols for diagnosis and treatment of Armed Forces personnel. Why are we reinventing the wheel instead of following such an example? Do we deserve anything less? I have received information that members of the Canadian Forces are currently prepared to assist with these protocols… why are we dallying?[15]
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a growing concern in policing personnel because of its negative impact on both the officer and his family. Whether PSTD sparks the loss of a job, marriage or life, it is a condition needing immediate attention to prevent further harm. As there is now both awareness and an accepted method of therapy, there is no excuse for insurance agencies, policing organizations or governments to not be providing adequate support. Now, because of the greater awareness, our next step is to develop a method of prevention. By having a reduced stigma, it is possible for awareness and acceptance to get to an officer, before the disorder does. The police can be reassured their feelings are meant to be shared, not bottled up. With better preparation and psychologists available to all police personnel, the old-school stoic office can become a place of protection and development. We have the ability to reduce current impacts, even prevent future cases.     The RCMP is currently the only Canadian police force to benefit from the well-oiled system of PTSD treatment available to the Canadian Armed Forces. This is because, as the main government-affiliated policing organization, all PTSD claims are filed through Veteran’s Affairs. This system has been ground-breaking in providing a transparent system of diagnoses and treatment, as it can both quickly and efficiently manage the huge applicant numbers each year. This process is vital in reducing any additional stress that would otherwise be caused by filing reports in a lengthy appeal, thus reducing a further impact on the PSTD. Therefore, through a more efficient program, PTSD causes less harm on the officer and their family throughout the legal matters.

We cannot entirely eliminate the kryptonite, but we can strengthen Superman.

 

Author Bridget Rusk  May 28th, 2012

[1] Lisa Yates, “Putting a Face to PTSD” PAO Magazine

[2] Allen R. Kates, “Copshock, Surviving Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)”

[3] Bill Rusk, “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder within the Police Community” PAO Magazine

[4] Karen Kleiss, “Tories Pledge WCB Coverage for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder” Edmonton Journal

[5] Larry Molyneaux, “Psychology in Police Work” PAO Magazine

[6] “PTSD STATISTICS” EmotionalTuning.com

[7] Mark Bonokoski, “Peace, Justice at Last” Toronto Sun

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cal Millar, “Police and Union to Talk about Why Officer Quit” Toronto Star

[10] Ibid.

[11] Rusk, PAO Magazine

[12] PAO “BACKGROUNDER: Presumptive Coverage for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Police Personnel”

[13] Ibid.

[14] Kleiss, Edmonton Journal

[15] Bruce Kruger, “A Canadian Police Officer Died Today From PTSD” Badge of Life Canada.