Vol. 81, No. 2Cover stories

Eight RCMP employees, some wearing police uniforms, stand outdoors in the snow smiling.

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Bringing mental-health support to employees

Sgt. Jesse Gilbert (centre) helped arrange mental-health counselling for RCMP employees in Fort Smith, N.W.T. Credit: RCMP


For police and other first responders who struggle with mental illnesses, making the decision to get treatment can be tough.

Step one is asking for help. But when that assistance is hundreds of kilometres away, taking the next step to seek support can sometimes seem futile.

That's one reason why Sgt. Jesse Gilbert decided to arrange mental-health counselling for employees at the eight-person RCMP detachment in Fort Smith, N.W.T., located near the Alberta border.

"Well, it seemed like it made more sense to fly one person here, rather than flying everyone out," says Gilbert, the detachment commander. "Fort Smith is a great place, but there just aren't any mental-health supports. Many smaller communities don't or can't provide mental-health treatment, so I wanted to help change that, at least a little."

Challenges and solutions

Like any other Canadian town or city where RCMP employees are stationed, northern detachments receive a variety of calls for service. Requests for help are sometimes mundane, but sometimes also dramatic. Those latter calls can range from suicides, domestic violence complaints, assaults and other volatile situations where the aftermath can have a profound impact on an officer's mental health.

RCMP officers are also highly visible in smaller communities, unlike big cities where residents may only encounter police occasionally.

In addition, officers have to deal with an evolving work culture. That's because the idea that they should be tough enough "to suck it up and move on from tough situations," as one RCMP officer put it, is still on the minds of many officers.

"But we're changing that," says Gilbert. "We have to be accountable and members also face a lot of pressure."

In an effort to spark change, Gilbert turned to the detachment's staff — and health officials in the RCMP and territory's health department — to discuss the importance of mental health and counselling care. He also got their support to arrange Fort Smith-based counselling sessions, where officers could, if they chose to, discuss any issues.

"People finally recognize how important mental health is and that we have to make every effort to address problems," he says. "It's important to get people to talk."

Arrangements were made to fly a psychologist into the community. After making a presentation, the psychologist offered private discussions upon request.

One officer who participated in the presentation and asked to remain anonymous, says he was comforted knowing he's not alone in feeling anxious or worried about on-the-job issues.

"I attended and it was interesting to see other people thinking the same things you are," he says. "It was good to see others talking about the challenges of dealing with the issues associated with policing."

First stage of recovery

Dr. Barbara Schmalz, an RCMP psychologist based in Calgary, helped organize and support the event.

"Police officers need to remember they are human and may need help like anyone else," she says.

Schmalz, who gave a lot of credit to Gilbert for co-ordinating the counselling, says the first stage of recovery from large-scale or crisis events begins with education and awareness.

"It's important for officers, and everyone, to understand they shouldn't let things get too bad," she says. "Let's make sure we get people help as soon as they need it."

The first session was held in October 2018 and Gilbert says plans are underway to provide more gatherings with mental-health specialists.

He adds that employees need to learn to help themselves.

"We run short so often (in the detachments) that no one wants to take the time off when they're feeling stressed," he says. "By leaving, they feel that they're placing further burden on the remaining members. So out of compassion, they don't take medical days."

"But they need to seek out help and avoid reaching a crisis point."

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