N.S. Mountie with PTSD says mental health services ‘definitely not enough’

Nova Scotia RCMP Sgt. Joe Taplin spent thousands of dollars installing an insert in his fireplace to please his wife — and to contain one of his PTSD triggers: smoke.

The smell of it brings back memories of burning flesh and has haunted him for years, he says. It takes him back to the early 1990s, when he was a young officer in northern Alberta responding to a call of a young man who fell into a campfire and died. 

But only now is Taplin, 57, finally able to talk publicly about his mental health struggles — despite his daily drill from 2003 to 2010 as lone the RCMP media spokesperson answering questions around the clock from reporters about awful news.

“When you talk about tragic events and then you kind of go home and see your own family and you worry about them going through those same types of tragedies, it really eats at your heart,” he said in an exclusive interview with CBC.

Taplin at the RCMP training depot in 1990. (Submitted by Joe Taplin)

He’s joining B.C. Staff Sgt. Jennifer Pound as the latest Mountie to go public about their battle with PTSD in a bid to improve mental health support for members of an organization whose care, he says, is inadequate for what he calls “our number one workplace injury right now.”

In June 2015, Taplin had a breakdown in front of a boss. 

“I started crying and I said, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with my head. I can’t sleep, I’m having nightmares, I’m sweating at night, I’m isolating myself, I’m taking anger [out] at my kids and my wife, who don’t deserve it,'” he recalled.

A second person he confided in led him to a private-practice psychologist — “a godsend” in his recovery. 

“The RCMP weren’t there to help me at that time. So, I actually had to go and find help myself.”

Taplin was posted to two detachments in Alberta before he returned home in 1998. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki has recently acknowledged the organization has more work to do to “maintain a psychologically healthy and safe workplace.”

According to a review by the veterans ombudsman, as of June 2015, nearly 3,600 RCMP members were receiving a disability pension for a psychiatric disability — including PTSD. And 38 per cent of regular and civilian members on long-term sick leave cited mental health as the reason.

A dozen members and 10 retirees have taken their own lives in the past five years, according to the latest statistics from the RCMP.

It is hiring 14 additional psychologists to work on an early detection and intervention program by spring 2020. And a study launched this spring will monitor new officers for five years “to get effective treatment and support to our members earlier.”

Taplin hasn’t tried to take his own life, but after living with nightmares and sleep deprivation for years, “sometimes you think, can you go along, can I keep living like this?” 

Joe Taplin and his wife Lana on their wedding day in 2002. (Submitted by Joe Taplin)

He keeps those thoughts in check with coping skills he’s learned in therapy. And he’s encouraged by positive changes in the medical service, such as a new RCMP doctor and nurses who are tuned into mental health.

But Taplin believes the RCMP needs to go further, faster. Currently there is only one staff psychologist serving H division, which covers the entire Halifax area. Taplin says that is “definitely not enough.”

During his years as the voice of the Mounties, he estimates he handled roughly 4,000 incidents — murders, fiery car and plane crashes, sexual assaults of children, and drownings. About 90 of the files involved deaths.

His job involved comforting families devastated by tragedies, some of whom he still stays in touch with. 

“It’s very rewarding. Would I change it? Probably not because I do believe I did help some people. But I went through that personal struggle myself, and still to this day go through a struggle with anxiety and depression.”

Now in charge of community policing for the Halifax district, and approaching his 30th anniversary with the force, it’s a job he still loves.

He’s recovering with help from a therapist, the support of his family, and companionship from three dogs.

Taplin says his dogs, Lulu, Bolt, and Nahla provide him with comfort, especially at the beach where he finds solitude. (Rob Short/CBC)

But he wishes he had help early in his his career at a time when members were considered “married to the force” and emotional struggles were regarded as weaknesses and hidden. He would turn to alcohol at the end of a tough day. His first marriage ended in divorce.

He hopes the new generation of Mounties won’t have to suffer in silence as he did for 25 years.

“I love the RCMP,” he said. “I just think right now with PTSD is that we’re behind a little bit; not a little bit, a lot.”

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