“One night while my wife was at work, I headed down to the basement. I sat on the couch, glass of scotch in one hand and my gun in the other. I felt I had nothing to live for. ‘I’m a burden. Everyone would be better off without me.’ My dog Zach, who was lying on the floor in his usual spot, heard a sound — it was me loading my magazine into the gun. He came over, sniffed the gun in my hand, put his head in my lap and looked deep into my eyes. My dog never did that, but he knew something was up. I looked at him, said ‘Okay, Zackie, not tonight,’ and unloaded my gun.”
If not for my dog …
Only twice over the years did retired RCMP officer Ron Campbell, 59, think about actually ending his life.
But emotionally, he had been in turmoil over much of his 35-year career with the RCMP — some of those years working as a hostage negotiator and a homicide investigator. “You’re trained physically and academically to do a job that is extremely stressful, but you’re not trained emotionally,” Ron says. Fatal car accidents, suicides, child abuse, sexual assault — they’re part of the job but new recruits don’t have a lot of life experience.
Stressors are internalized, and even though most officers have a huge capacity to deal with external trauma, eventually — little by little — the trauma gets to the best of them. “It’s that cumulative piece that causes the most stress for officers,” says Ron. “I didn’t recognize what was happening to me over the years. Like everyone else, I had internalized my emotions.”
Everyone has a tipping point. For Ron, it was February 2004. As a member of the emergency response team, he was called in as a negotiator to try to de-escalate a situation involving an armed man who had barricaded himself in a building. During the standoff, he shot and killed the team’s dog handler. The man was Ron’s long-time friend. “It took me to a place I couldn’t cope with,” says Ron.
As time marched on, Ron kept playing other incidents over and over in his mind — reliving incidents like the time two high school students he had coached on the football team died in a car accident; or the time a guy threw a baby across the room and it hit the wall; or watching helplessly on as a man burned to death in a vehicle. “Everyone has a tipping point, and many will never go and get help. There are a lot of walking wounded out there,” says Ron.
Having reached his tipping point, Ron knew he had to get help. Swallowing his pride and embarrassment — what he calls ‘self-stigma’ — almost a year after his buddy was killed, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It’s been an ongoing struggle to manage his mental illness. Counselling worked at first, but when Ron plateaued, he was prescribed medication for his PTSD. The dosage and meds were tweaked a few times, and then Ron crashed — “I went into a real tailspin.” Ron didn’t just have PTSD; he also had major depressive disorder, and that required a whole different type of medication — and he was sent to a trauma specialist.
Today, Ron is a lot more hopeful about his future. After numerous tweaking of his medications, the right combination was found to treat his depression and today, Ron’s “in the best place I’ve been since 2004.”
He’s on the speaking circuit, talking to members of the first responder community and others about the absolute need to confront one’s demons; to put a face to one’s mental illness; to get help.
Ron also joined the Canadians for Equitable Access to Depression Medication (CEADM), a coalition recently formed to highlight the inequity issue that many Canadians who rely on public drug plan coverage face when trying to access the latest depression medications, because he wants to effect change from a policy perspective.
“I’m fortunate because my private drug plan covers the cost of my medications, which have really helped me. But what about people on public plans who can’t find the right combination of medications for their depression because they don’t have access to the latest innovative medicines? It’s shameful that many Canadians don’t have access. Mental health is not treated like a mainstream medical issue and it should … and I will sing that message loud and clear anywhere, anytime.”