Watch above: Global News has exclusive details about the RCMP’s new mental health strategy. Shirlee Engel explains.
OTTAWA – The night of March 2, 2011 is seared into Const. Peter Neily’s mind.
“I’ve never been so scared in my life,” he said. “I did believe I was going to die.”
That night Neily, who was stationed in Surrey, B.C., shot and killed a suspect while on duty.
The man crashed his car and Neily rammed his cruiser into the vehicle to try and prevent him from escaping. Neily, who was then trapped in his car, said the suspect aimed a rifle at him.
Neily responded by firing nearly 30 rounds into the car, killing the man.
Neily, now a nine-year veteran of the force, was cleared of criminal wrongdoing and his actions were deemed necessary to save his life.
But he hasn’t been the same since.
“I became depressed, isolated and I did begin to develop some substance abuse issues with alcohol,” Neily said.
He was later diagnosed with an operational stress injury and knew he needed to get help.
“The hardest thing to do was to come forward and say I have this problem. I have a huge problem and it is impacting my life and changing who I am and destroying everything around me,” he said. “Once I did the help was there for me.”
The RCMP touts Neily’s story as proof there is help for officers suffering from mental stress.
But the senior brass now admits it wasn’t enough and they are overhauling the system.
New mental health strategy
Global News has obtained a copy of the Mounties’ new five-year mental health strategy, which aims to eliminate stigma and educate members so the signs can be detected early. And the RCMP will conduct annual management reviews to make sure it is meeting the needs of those with mental health issues.
The force says officers unable to work cost taxpayers $70 million and of those an estimated 38 per cent are on long-term sick leave due to mental health issues. And the Mounties admit that police officers often confront situations that can have negative impacts on mental health.
The plan isn’t dependent on creating new services for its success, but a huge push to increase awareness of mental health issues from the top-down.
“The services are there and they’ve been there,” said Assistant Commissioner Gilles Moreau. “It’s one thing to develop a policy, but you have to make it live and you have to make it so that people know what the tools are and aren’t afraid of using them.”
Doing that will require educating the force about mental health issues, especially managers and commanders who are often on the frontlines of getting people help, Moreau said.
“That’s what’s different is that the leadership is talking about it and making it ok to talk about it,” Moreau said.
Moreau, who was scheduled to retire this month, is staying on another two years to spearhead the strategy. He too has had mental health issues during his career, but said being able to talk about it openly with colleagues made the difference.
For years, Global News has been covering the stories of officers and experts who said the force was failing Mounties with PTSD.
The brass even cancelled plans for a peer support program that’s helped thousands of people with mental health issues in the military.
Some remain skeptical that the new strategy will have the intended impact. It comes with no definitive price tag and lacks specific details.
“It’s a very vague first step, but I think how we are going to measure the effectiveness is having it properly measured, evaluated and seeing what funding is put in place. That’s going to be an indicator of how seriously they are taking the strategy,” said Jeff Morley.
Morley served 23 years in the RCMP. Now a psychologist, he continues to hear stories of officers falling through the cracks.
“The RCMP is still not conducting any research and certainly inviting external researchers to come in and evaluate what are the rates of PTSD and mental health concerns in RCMP employees,” he said. “I still get concerned in that way they are still sticking their head in the sand a bit.”
Recovery has been an ongoing process for Neily, but he’s been back on duty for almost two years.
“I know personally that (the RCMP) cares about their members as well because they have been there for me,” he said.
“I’m back to work and I have semblance of normal life. I’ve been at work today, been doing my job and am back to enjoying my work.”