Scott Stratton knows to keep teddy bears in his police cruiser, in case he needs to explain tragedies to children.
He says he learned that lesson two weeks into his training as a highway safety officer with the Ontario Provincial Police, when he was called to a collision in which a man, suspected of drunk driving, drove into the path of an oncoming vehicle. The impact of the crash launched the man’s wife out of their minivan and onto the roadway, where she died almost instantly.
After attending the scene, Stratton spent the night in the hospital with the couple’s children — both under 10 — who were in the back seat at the time of the crash.
“They were frantic,” Stratton remembers. “They knew something was wrong. They wanted to know where their mom and dad were.”
Over the course of his 20-year career, he estimates he’s investigated more than 30 fatal collisions, as well as hundreds of non-fatal collisions that have left victims with severe, sometimes life-altering injuries.
Last week, after months contemplating whether to go public, he posted an uncharacteristically long paragraph to his Facebook account.
“So I’ve been thinking about how to share what’s been going on with me for a while,” he began. “In June 2019, I was diagnosed with PTSD.”
For years, Stratton said he struggled to recognize that something was wrong. “I was far too proud and stubborn to admit that there was something not quite right,” he wrote in the post. “I wasn’t dealing with the stuff in my head the right way and let it fester. I thought it would all just go away.”
He said he was in a constant state of hyperawareness that would occasionally lapse into a state where his body felt like it was shutting down.
“My brain was protecting me from what it perceived to be threats and the memories of them,” he wrote. “I couldn’t remember how to do particular tasks, even simple things. I would get angry and frustrated and then just hide from everything and everyone.”
Stratton’s admission isn’t unfamiliar to first responders. The emergency-scenario workforce is among the most affected by post-traumatic stress-disorder and related mental illnesses out of any group in Canada. According to a CAMH study, 29 per cent of police officers experience PTSD-related symptoms, versus 9 per cent of the general population.
Though Stratton said he has never had suicidal thoughts, research from CAMH shows someone with PTSD is at a higher risk of suicide or intentional self-harm. In 2018, nine police officers from various forces across Ontario died by suicide. Since 2012, 13 OPP officers have died by suicide, prompting an internal review launched by the former OPP commissioner in 2017.
Bill Rusk, the executive director of Badge for Life, a group aimed at helping police personnel and their families deal with mental health issues, says PTSD is prevalent among first-responders to motor-vehicle accidents, who are regularly exposed to gruesome accidents involving one or several casualties.
He estimates the average first-responder will experience more than 900 traumatic events over the course of a 30-year career.
“This is accumulative trauma,” Rusk said. “As officers, you become overexposed to tragic situations, and this can lead to various symptoms that affect you and your loved ones.”
Stratton said his illness wasn’t borne out of a single incident. “It was the like the sting of a thousand bees,” he said. “Individually, one isn’t extremely painful. But after getting stung several times, eventually enough was enough.”
As the collisions added up, Stratton began developing symptoms that he initially ignored. He had trouble sleeping. He found it hard to wind down after long overnight shifts. He would jump at the sound of a ringing telephone or the ping of an email notification. And he grew lethargic, too tired for work and unable to make conversation with family and co-workers.
His wife, Laura, noticed the changes. She said he became anxious when driving the family car, constantly worried that a passing vehicle would swerve into the oncoming lane and launch into their windshield.
“Don’t you see every car as a threat?” she recalled him asking her one day while they were driving. “Don’t you think every passing car is going to come flying into our lane and kill us?”
Dozens of victims had the right-of-way when they died. What could they have done to avoid a crash? For months after an accident, Stratton said he would avoid driving in lanes where a victim had been driving when the accident occurred. It took him months to make quick left turns at major intersections after a particularly gruesome crash in 2013 left a woman dead after she turned into the path of a speeding dump truck.
At first, Laura didn’t think Stratton had PTSD. Maybe just burnout from the night shifts, she said. She thought he needed a vacation.
“I told him, you’ve been paying your union dues for almost 20 years, you can take time off,” she said. “I was begging him to get help and figure out how he could like his job.”
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He said his supervisors noticed something was wrong, too. One day in June, his boss took him for coffee.
Stratton said she told him, “Either you take time off, or I’m going to find an incredibly boring job for you in the office.” He opted for the leave of absence.
OPP Commissioner Thomas Carrique said supervisors within the force are expected to watch for signs of mental health problems from officers.
“Changes in behaviour can appear in many different ways, which is why it’s important that we know the people we work with and we know who we work for,” Carrique told the Star. “We have a collective responsibility to look out for the well-being of each other.”
In August 2018, the OPP launched an internal review after three officers died by suicide to determine what might be preventing its members from seeking help with mental health issues.
Carrique, who took the position of commissioner in March, said he wants the force to “learn from past experiences” to ensure that members aren’t facing obstacles in seeking help.
Stratton said he’s received medical help through service providers partnered with the OPP. He saw a doctor who confirmed his PTSD diagnosis, and he started seeing a therapist, who told him to meditate five times a week and try yoga.
In the months since his diagnosis, Stratton said his problems appear to have subsided.
“The sleeping problems don’t happen as often now,” he said. He doesn’t tense-up at the sound of a phone ringing. He sleeps longer than two hours a night.
Yet, there are still bad days. “The frustrating thing is sometimes there is no rhyme or reason that I can come up with as to why I just want to lay in bed and be miserable,” he said.
The Facebook post took a couple weeks to write and several months for Stratton to summon the courage to publish. Since sharing his story last Thursday, Stratton’s post has received nearly 1,000 “shares” and countless responses. He said he’s received dozens of messages from friends and acquaintances who’ve cited similar experiences with PTSD.
Rusk said the stigma surrounding mental illness in first-responder circles is a major reason why it’s often left unidentified.
“There are always people who don’t believe that someone is mentally injured,” he said. “There are people who think they are faking it. There’s an assumption that people who are having trouble with the job are weak.”
Stratton said he hopes to change this mentality by speaking openly about his experiences.
“As police officers, as men, we’re raised and trained to force this stuff down and pretend it doesn’t exist,” he said. “But we don’t have to be imprisoned by this. The minute I admitted there was something wrong, I felt a giant weight lifted off my shoulders that I didn’t fully realize was there.”