When the RCMP's Road to Mental Health Readiness course, or R2MR, was piloted at Codiac detachment in New Brunswick in 2013, many people didn't take it seriously. But the 2014 shooting deaths of three RCMP officers in Moncton caused a major shift in the conversation around mental health.
"It affected everybody. We couldn't not talk about it," says Sheri Dryden, a fitness and health advisor for RCMP in New Brunswick. She says more employees are talking about their emotions using a colour-coded chart from the RCMP's mental health awareness course, which indicates feelings, behaviours and attitudes that range from healthy to troublesome, in gradients of green, yellow, orange and red.
"I don't need to say I'm depressed, I'm anxious, I'm not sleeping. I can just say 'I'm orange,'" says Dryden. "It gives people an acceptable language to discuss mental health comfortably."
Start talking about it
Like many officers, Sgt. JP MacDougall goes through periods when he feels overwhelmed from the job. Last August, he was one of the first RCMP officers on scene where four people, including two Fredericton police officers, were shot dead from an apartment window.
"We're starting to realize now that it's OK to be mentally tired and drained. We need to start talking about it, and normalize the conversation," says MacDougall, an RCMP detachment commander in Woodstock. "What's not OK is to not talk about it, not deal with it, bury it and wait for it to fester."
He compares difficult experiences to drops of water in a cup that can overflow into a mental-health crisis.
"When the negative feelings are dealt with, you take water out of that cup," he says. "Out of all those events, the ones that I spoke about don't haunt me."
Retired Cst. Peggy Delisle worked many disastrous vehicle accidents and witnessed gruesome deaths during her 15-year career in the RCMP.
"We don't have time to process what we just witnessed before going on to the next one," says Delisle. "You put them in this little compartment in your mind and forget about them until a tragic event makes the doors flood open."
When a third member she knew died in the line of duty in the Moncton shooting, Delisle found herself having flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks. She became angry, irritable and mistrustful: "All of a sudden there was no colour in the world."
She says talking with a therapist from the Operational Stress Injury Clinic in Fredericton, N.B., an independent mental-health treatment centre specializing in working with police, helped overcome the darkness.
"Never underestimate the power of a good boo-hoo," laughs Delisle. "So many people associate this with weakness, but that's not true. It takes a strong person to take this step."
For Cpl. Lynn Saulnier, a single work call triggered emotions from months of personal issues. That night in June, Saulnier held her gun drawn searching for the Moncton shooter.
A supervisor on the Further Investigation Unit at the RCMP Codiac detachment, Saulnier still had her gun out eight hours later, when she heard about the deaths of two of her officers over the police radio.
"Because I had a job to do, I just put it out of my mind to deal with later," she says. After the shock wore off, Saulnier says she felt angry and empty.
"I wasn't progressing, like I was looping," she says. "I started not being able to do the day-to-day things."
When she realized the changes she saw in herself were on the risky end of the mental-health colour spectrum, she knew she needed help.
"It's not the dungeon that no one talks about anymore," she says about discussing her grief with a counsellor and a close group of girlfriends.
Saulnier says she thinks her own traumatic experience now makes her a more credible instructor for the R2MR course. She now helps others know their colour — and when to get help.
"People can say 'she's been there and done that, she's not just blowing smoke.'"