‘They want to disappear’: psychiatrist speaks to Mounties’ PTSD struggle
It was overhearing his direct superior tell another employee that Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre was “redundant” that drove Lemaitre to take his final stress leave from the RCMP his widow, Sheila, testified on Monday.
But on Wednesday, the superior whom Sheila said her husband overheard denied ever hearing the term redundant used in relation to Lemaitre.
Chief Supt. Denis Boucher testified Lemaitre was “a key part of my organization.”
Boucher then broke down on the stand, reading the brief correspondence he had exchanged with the sergeant leading up to Lemaitre’s July 29, 2013 suicide.
“I have not heard from you since your last email so I thought I’d say hi, let you know I’m prepared to help you if I can,” Boucher read from an email he sent in May 2013. “If you can, I will also need a quick update on our status.”
Lemaitre then reportedly wrote back: “Sorry I haven’t updated you, but it’s been quite a struggle.”
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Boucher said he wrote Lemaitre his last email on July 22, just days before the sergeant hanged himself. In the email, he testified to writing: “Thank you for sending me your medical certificate. Hope your recovery is progressing well. I know there can be ups and downs.”
Here, while reading, Boucher’s voice cracked, and he paused before reading out his offer to “meet for a coffee, if you wish.”
Lemaitre wrote back a day later to thank him for the email.
“This is very difficult,” he reportedly responded. “The psychiatrist just changed my meds because they’re not getting the results.”
That would be the last update.
The inquest, which is meant to find facts rather than lay blame, is examining the circumstances that led up to Lemaitre taking his own life in an effort to see if more could be done to prevent similar deaths in the future.
So far, the process has seemed to pit current Mounties against those who’ve left the force, with the former group saying much has changed in recent years and the latter saying it’s not enough.
A psychiatrist who treats Mounties and veterans and specializes in addiction and PTSD testified at length Wednesday about the difficulty of supporting people who are struggling as Lemaitre was.
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Dr. Shaohua Lu, who works at the Operational Stress Injury Clinic in B.C., said the Mounties need a more comprehensive plan for dealing with the mental health issues of its members.
While Mounties like Boucher testified about respectful workplace policies, peer-to-peer support and anti-harassment rules, Lu said it can be a challenge to get people to seek out the help they need.
“Trying to get individuals to maintain social connections is very, very hard; they become increasingly isolated,” he testified.
“They don’t want to talk to their friends, they don’t want to talk to other members, they want to disappear.”
There has been progress in encouraging people to speak up about issues like PTSD, Lu said, but the stigma is still there, particularly for members of a force like the Mounties.
“Nobody wants to be seen as a bad partner… so they hide it,” he said.
Mental health issues can then be exacerbated in some cases when a person, like Lemaitre, takes steps for treatment that include stress leave.
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“A lot of personal identity is often wrapped up into work and for certain professions in particular — police forces, military — there is a degree of camaraderie, us-against-the-world mentality,” Lu testified.
“It’s helpful in many ways to maintain the spirits and to maintain the sense of collegiality but it also means… when you leave, what are you going to do?”
Feelings of betrayal, much like Lemaitre’s wife testified he felt after the Tasering death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport in 2007, would certainly be a factor contributing to his risk of suicide, Lu said.
Lemaitre was the force’s spokesperson in the days following Dziekanski’s death as news spun around the globe, implicating the Mounties in the incident.
When Lemaitre learned the information he’d shared was inaccurate, Sheila — who filed a lawsuit against the force after her husband’s death, alleging he was used as a scapegoat for the Mounties — said he was devastated and wanted to correct the record but wasn’t allowed to.
The RCMP settled that lawsuit earlier this year. A five-person jury is expected to deliver recommendations to help prevent similar deaths later this week.
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