Content warning: This story contains information related to suicide
Assistant Commissioner Ches Parsons has spent more than 35 years with the RCMP from front-line policing to senior leadership roles. The work has also taken a toll on his mental health, including a long-standing struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Gazette writer Paul Northcott spoke to Parsons about the trauma he's endured, his recovery and what he hopes to accomplish as an RCMP Mental Health Champion.
Tell me a little about your career. What type of work have you done?
I spent almost 15 years in what we call limited-duration postings. My first posting was to Fort McMurray, Alta., and then I went to the Northwest Territories. I worked in general duties in the Inuvik area, then in organized crime and with the Emergency Response Team (ERT) in Yellowknife for about 10 years. In 2001, I came to Ottawa as part of the RCMP's response to the 9/11 attacks.
I worked in national security until 2018, most recently as the director general of Federal Policing and National Security. Then I went home to Newfoundland and Labrador to become the commanding officer. I returned to Ottawa in August 2021 for my current posting, commanding officer of National Division.
Tell me about the trauma you experienced during your career?
In the early days, I was involved in a number of violent encounters. A lot of it involved some pretty close calls, from being slashed with a knife to responding to active shooters. The experience of being shot at with bullets and fragments all around you, and seeing an ERT comrade go down during an active engagement — these are all very difficult to process.
Within five months of my arrival in Fort McMurray, my trainer took his own life. Two other officers who were close to me also died by suicide. No one in those times had any training or awareness, and there was such a terrible stigma attached to mental illness. No one dared to say anything.
When and how did you deal with your mental health challenges?
I'm very open about my PTSD and the success of my treatment. People ask what the tipping point was. For me, I just got fed up with living uncomfortably. At first, I tried to get treatment for PTSD, that was around 2015. I was told by an RCMP psychiatrist that I would get the best possible care. But the treatment never happened and that was very difficult for me.
In 2018, I finally got treatment for PTSD and all that violence and horror-based trauma I endured. I received a psychotherapy called EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and it was miraculous. I also received some cognitive based therapy (CBT).
But when I finished, I knew things weren't a 100 per cent right and that I wasn't finished with therapy. EMDR and CBT are typically done in an outpatient format but, I think for people with full-blown PTSD, that can only take you so far. There comes a point in time you have to do something a little more aggressive.
Someone with PTSD doesn't remember things — we relive things. So what happened to me in my first 15 years I relive all the time. And the PTSD brain recalls these things differently, usually much more catastrophically. So in February 2022, I went away for seven weeks to Edgewood, which is a treatment centre in Nanaimo, B.C. They took the negativity out of me. While you can't forget this stuff, the traumas no longer have the deep emotional and physical impact they once did.
Can you tell me about your decision to seek help?
It's always going to be a difficult decision to make. The difficulty is not the decision but the consequences of the decision. It's still stigmatized and when you're seeking help at a late stage in your career, yeah, there's less on the line. Would I have done it as a superintendent 10 years ago? Probably not.
How did others respond?
Some people sent emails, some called, but most people said nothing.
It's in that silence that you understand the stigma that's attached to the issue. Among those who came out in support, most of them carried their own demons. The people who tend to reach out are already checking in on people they know who suffer. Our slang for it is 'buddy checks.' I do buddy checks every day, and people buddy check me.
The feeling still persists among police officers that being open about their mental health or seeking help will damage their career and reputation. What are your thoughts on this?
Right now in the RCMP there's a much more heightened awareness around the impact of mental illness, but there's still a great deal of stigma around those who come forward. We're getting away from that perception that mental illness is a sign of weakness, but we're not far enough away yet. The culture of the RCMP is still in a place where many people who are suffering do not come forward for fear of the consequences — real or perceived.
You're now an RCMP Mental Health Champion. What does that role mean to you?
For me, it's an opportunity. We're working on getting engagements lined up for employees. We're talking to RCMP management teams about the importance of talking about PTSD.
That means going out there, talking to people and saying to the individuals who suffer: "
Look, you can get better, you can come back, and you can continue to contribute." To the individuals who don't suffer, "
Understand that your colleagues have a right to treatment and to be treated fairly."
I want the stigma around mental health removed entirely and I want members to be respected. I want psychological wounds recognized for the honourable wounds they are.
What mental health advice would you give to others?
You have to be your own advocate. If you don't feel well because of something that happened to you on the job, you must advance your concerns yourself. There are long-term consequences when you bury trauma.
How are you doing now?
I don't like saying this, but I'm probably more sane than most people. I'm not troubled by anything. I don't worry. I don't fret over things.
I still carry certain resentments towards the RCMP because things were done badly. Physically, I can't undo the damage of the PTSD, but I can certainly maintain what's left of my overall health.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact one of the mental health resources below.
- Mental health resources for Canadians
Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566
- Mental health resources for RCMP employees
For a copy of the RCMP Employee Well-being Strategy 2021-2024, please send a request to: RCMP.MentalHealthActionPlan-PlanActionSanteMentale.GRC@rcmp-grc.gc.ca.