VANCOUVER -- British Columbia has the second-highest rate of RCMP officer suicides in the country, but despite that, a new national program to combat those deaths has not been rolled out in the province.

According to the RCMP, there have been 33 Mountie suicides since 2014.

Thirteen of those members were retired, but at least four of those deaths were in B.C.

Although those numbers could be higher because according to the RCMP, it has limited access to personal information once an officer retires.

“When a retired members dies, their executor/estate contacts the insurance administrator directly regarding benefits. The RCMP is not involved in this process and is not provided with any information regarding the cause of death. As a result, we do not have complete information on the number of retired members who have died by suicide,” said a spokesperson in a statement.

The force started tracking suicide statistics back in 2006, but didn’t begin recording details about which divisions officers belong to or their employment status until 2014.

It still does not track how many officers are being treated for PTSD or how long they wait for treatment.

"I don't know what it's going to take for them to get the fact that the system is failing their people,” said retired Staff Sgt. Jennifer Pound.

The former spokesperson for the Integrated Homicide Investigation team chose to take an early retirement earlier this year, after struggles with PTSD and getting treatment through RCMP Health Services.

RCMP health services

RCMP health services is largely a gradual return to work program that focuses on an officer’s fitness for duty.

“It is not the role of RCMP occupational health services (OHS) to secure treatment for members. If members require treatment, they should see their primary health care provider,” said a spokesperson.

Pound feels the RCMP is deflecting its responsibility to keep its members safe and that policy is leading to suicides.

"I go into some pretty dark places on where I could have ended up, had I not kept moving forward,” she said.

New program

The RCMP launched a new psychological health screening program in February of this year with the goal of earlier detection and prevention of mental health issues among members.

“These assessments will be mandatory for active regular members every three years,” said the force in a statement to CTV News.

However, the program is only available in five divisions, not including British Columbia.

“The RCMP has faced challenges recruiting psychologists to support this program but remains committed to ensuring that all active regular members will have access to this important initiative,” said a spokesperson

Mental health resources

A 2017 report from Canada's auditor general found Mounties did not have access to mental health support that met their needs.

The RCMP has since introduced a number of new programs, courses and apps available to members aimed at preventing and supporting mental health issues.

Its most prominent program is the the "Road to Mental Readiness" curriculum that was adopted in 2015.

It was initially created for the Canadian Armed Forces, but was later adapted as a mandatory course for all RCMP employees.

“Training compliance for R2MR has been between 90 per cent to 94 per cent since June of 2018,” said a RCMP spokesperson.”

The program aims to reduce stigma, teach participants to recognize declining mental health, introduce coping strategies, and identify internal resources.

According to a 2020 RCMP survey, 82 per cent of respondents agreed that the R2MR workshop provided them with the information they need to access the resources for mental health support.

However, RCMP's national headquarters could not say whether the program has led to a decline in officers on sick leave for an operational stress injury as it does not keep track of those statistics.

The force also runs a number of peer support programs, tele-health services, and suicide prevention courses.

A more hands-on approach

The Canadian Armed Forces secures mental health resources for its more than 100,000 members, running its own health-care system.

Treatment is provided through 37 CAF primary care clinics that are distributed at bases and wings across the country.

Thirty-one offer specialized in-house mental health care.

Staff include social workers, mental health nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, addiction counsellors and mental health chaplains.

“Costs for mental health care within the CAF are complex as multiple organizations within the CAF contribute to mental health programs and resources for our members,” said Capt. Kylie Penney, public affairs officer of the Canadian Forces health services group, when asked how much it costs to run the health-care system.

Members may self-refer on a walk-in basis to the CAF psychosocial program or be referred by a physician or others such as their supervisor.

Specialized mental health services typically require a physician referral, though members can walk in at the daily urgent care at the clinic and be seen the same day.

The CAF also runs operational trauma and stress support centres for treatment that requires more comprehensive and consistent assessment.

Those programs are located at Halifax, Gagetown, Valcartier, Ottawa, Petawawa, Edmonton and Esquimalt.

“Walk-in patients and those in crisis are seen as soon as possible on the same day, usually within one hour of arriving at the military clinic during standard working hours,” said Penney in a statement.

An expert opinion

Jeff Morley spent 23 years as a member of the RCMP before becoming a psychologist.

He says the force has made some major strides in reducing stigma and increasing education about mental health issues, but there is still work to be done.

“I think there is still some stigma about what if I do come out and seek help, or I'm given a diagnosis of PTSD or depression, and what's that going to mean for my career," he said. "Or if I want to go to a specialty section or what implications is that going to have for me?”

He says it can also be hard for those who are suffering to find their own help.

"I think sometimes they don't have the energy or the wherewithal to kind of be proactive and seek out the support. And sometimes it's hard to find,” said Morley.

He says that finding treatment that’s tailored to first responders is important.

“I find with cops, it's more about 10, 15, 20, 30 years of chronic exposure to trauma and unfixable suffering," he said. "So with police will sometimes they have the big trauma, it's often more death by 1,000 cuts.”

Morley says he’s had some patients that have felt sufficiently supported by health services, but does know some who have fallen through the cracks.

“I think there is a moral obligation on the RCMP to make sure that members when they're off for sure, or even the ones that are at work and struggling, get the help they need.”

He believes that attitude within the RCMP is going in the right direction with an increase in programming, but says the fact that the force is still losing high-ranking members like Pound is alarming.

“I'm saddened when I hear stories of people like Jennifer that fell through the cracks. A good chart member, hard working mom, you know like really dedicated herself to this and done difficult work. So I think that's heartbreaking when I hear those stories.”

Morley is now calling on the RCMP to consider doing a forensic psychology review when there is a suicide to better understand what happened what could be done to prevent it.

"It's a matter of actually doing something tangible, listening to the people on what needs to happen, and getting resources out there so that people don't continue to kill themselves,” said Pound. 

This is the second part of a three-part series. The first story in the series can be found here. Check back for more this week.