RCMP Suicides: Food For Thought
On May 12, 2014 Cpl. Stewart Robertson, the Chairman of the Lower Mainland RCMP Members’ Support Group, posted an article on this blog entitled, “Bill C-42 Medical Discharges or Mobbing?” In the comments following that post he cited the suicides of three “E” Division RCMP members in three years; Ken Hind, Pierre Lemaitre, and Neil Ogurian. I would like to give you something to think about with regard to these seemingly forgotten tragedies.
Just as all professionals can say they were influenced in their trade by certain teachers, models, or mentors – I can do the same. The late existential psychologist (there haven’t been many of them) Rollo May had a profound effect on my world view and especially my practice of psychology. He once wrote something (in his book, Love and Will) that has stayed with me for decades; “No one can stand the perpetually numbing feeling of their own powerlessness”.
I would argue (as did May) that a lack of power in one’s life is a breeding ground for violence (refer to the Christopher Dorner articles in the archive of this blog). When we are powerless to effect change in what seems a hopeless situation, there we kindle the destructive forces of bitterness, apathy, frustration, rage and violence; and yes, this violence can be turned inward on self. It could very well be that the members noted above, suffered in a state of hopeless frustration for a prolonged period of time before they turned their violent urges on themselves. They may have felt powerless to effectively influence their situations; they may have all been victims of the same plague – powerlessness.
As one of the common factors running through these men’s lives is their membership in the RCMP, let’s hypothesize that they felt powerless to change some dehumanizing aspect of their employment, and saw this as a threat to their existence. Generally speaking, if an individual capitulates entirely to the system, that person runs the danger of losing agency in his/her own life. In other words, erasing him/herself as a person. In contrast, if one steps out of line and attempts to express him/herself that person is in danger of being labelled disloyal or incorrigible. In the RCMP’s toxic high stress work places of today, I would venture to say that pervasive powerlessness, career dissatisfaction, and lack of goal attainment has led to apathy and acquiescence to a “bunker mentality” (i.e. keep your head down, mouth shut, and suffer in silence). This culture of fear subjects the non-commissioned working ranks of the RCMP to “the perpetually numbing feeling of their own powerlessness” on a daily basis.
It is this powerlessness to effect meaningful change in a hopeless situation that leads people to think inaccurately and behave irrationally. When a human being loses hope, and is seduced by despair, the potential for violence (even against oneself) exists. Within a culture of fear like this, the dynamics begin to rot the organization from the top down; plays for power begin to turn senior executive against membership, senior executive against senior executive. And sadly, member against member.
As far back as 2007, a background paper prepared for the Task Force on Governance and Cultural Change in the RCMP stated that their examination of the RCMP revealed “an ethos that permitted the authoritarianism and intimidation by a few to override the principles of the many, and a culture of fear to prevent any effective challenge by subordinates of abusive behaviour by superiors”. Sound like powerlessness to you? There has been no reputable evidence since this report to suggest that anything has changed. The only change seems to be that more power has been given to the few to continue overriding the principles of the many.
Once a hidden issue (e.g. the culture of fear in which RCMP members work) becomes an acknowledged issue it is recognized as innovative and in need of change. As an acknowledged issue the problem becomes a target for internal and external forces. The unionization of the RCMP (e.g. the Mounted Police Professional Association of Canada) represents an internal pressure for change; a vehicle for a cultural makeover. Members of the RCMP will never be safe or comfortable challenging (by themselves) the abusive behaviours of managers until they, the rank and file, have a union. A modern police organization is not complete without an independent association to represent the victims of sexual harassment, intimidation, bullying, etc. It will be the association that represents the member; the member will be protected. An RCMP members’ association would ensure a voice for those with less power in the lower ranks of the organization; they would be safely moved up the continuum of power to a position of agency without fear of recrimination. If you find the above noted suicides repugnant and have grasped the gravity of powerlessness, I urge you to consider your vote carefully, if provided with a choice between your own independent professional association and the hopelessly compromised Division Staff Relations Representative Program.
Dr. Mike Webster, R. Psych.