Ex-Toronto police officer campaigns to lift PTSD stigma

As a Toronto police officer, Bill Rusk faced a life-threatening encounter on the job. His survival helps others cope.
As a Toronto police officer, Bill Rusk faced a life-threatening encounter on the job. His survival helps others cope. Photo courtesy Bill Rusk.

Bill Rusk remembers June 24, 1990, as a pretty hot and clammy day.

Police officer Rusk and his partner were on patrol in a North York neighbourhood and tasked with arresting two suspects in a drug investigation. Around 1 a.m., Rusk began pursuing a suspect.

“I was between two vehicles and (the suspect) turned and yelled. I realized he had a handgun pointed at me,” Rusk said. “It was too late for me to pull (out) my firearm.”

Rusk said he charged towards the suspect who fired his gun.

“I got shot and fell into him. He put the gun up against my face. He pulled the trigger again and blew me back several feet. I fell on the pavement.” Rusk said the man shot a couple more rounds at him and then turned and ran.

“My body (felt like it) was on fire. It burned,” Rusk said. “I was able to draw my gun and fire several rounds at him. My body was shutting down and I was losing a lot of blood.”

Bill Rusk, now 51, was back to work only five months after this incident. He said he relives it often and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sleepless nights and flashbacks are a regular occurrence for Rusk.

“With a psychological injury there are no slings, no bandages, no crutches,” Rusk said. “It is up to people to accept the diagnosis.”

Rusk now works for the Owen Sound Police Service, but is taking time off due to a recurrence of his symptoms.

Dr. Katy Kamkar, with more than 10 years of experience as a psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), said that every PTSD case is very different.

“PTSD can include symptoms such as upsetting memories of the traumatic event, flashbacks, avoidance, difficulty falling or staying asleep, mood swings and extreme vigilance,” she said.

In particular, Kamkar said, first responders require special attention.

“Their work is in providing protection,” she said. “They always provide support. They help people survive. Our work (at CAMH) is in helping first responders accept that they need help too.”

In some cases, PTSD can lead first responders to suicide. However, according to Dr. Kamkar, suicide is part of a greater mental health problem.

“(Suicide) can be coupled with other mental health issues, such as substance abuse, anxiety and depression,” she said.

Rogers with his dog
Richard Rogers with his dog, Bailey, in summer 2011.The yellow lab stayed beside Rogers when he killed himself in 2014; it was the end of a 12-year-long battle with PTSD. Photo courtesy Heidi Rogers.

In 2014, Toronto Police Service officer, Richard Rogers killed himself at his home in Ajax, Ont. Rogers, who served with the TPS for 24 years, was diagnosed with PTSD 12 years before his suicide.

Rogers’ widow, Heidi Rogers, 54, said her late husband was “the kind of cop that you would want to come to your door.”

According to Heidi Rogers, her husband was very affected by gruesome events he witnessed while working the beat in Toronto. She said that his co-workers would call him “Dr. Death” because of all the murders he attended.

“Looking back, it is easy to see the changes in my husband. It was a very, very slow change,” Heidi Rogers said. “Richard used to love putting up Christmas decorations; probably more than me. But one year I had to ask him for help (with the decorations). The next year he didn’t mention it and didn’t want to get involved. It was a lot of weird little progressions like that.”

Heidi Rogers said her husband went from doctor to doctor looking for the answer.

“They would tell him to take a week off (from work) and come back,” she said.

Richard Rogers killed himself on a Monday morning in July of 2014 at home in Ajax, where his widow still lives.

“He hanged himself from the stairwell,” Heidi Rogers recounted emotionally, “using a rail and a leather belt. … I regret that I didn’t tell him to quit (his job) and walk away.”

Bill Rusk, Heidi Rogers and Dr. Katy Kamkar all work to end the stigma attached to PTSD among first responders.

Rusk is the executive director of Badge of Life Canada, an organization comprised mostly of police officers, who provide support to officers struggling with PTSD.

“We try to promote some hope, recovery and wellness,” Rusk said. “It’s not just us sitting around telling our tales of woe.”

Rusk goes on speaking tours and addresses mental health issues among police officers; he also describes a means of treating first responders in a way that does not stigmatize.

“It is our hope that the next generation of officers won’t have that stigma,” Rusk said. “That will take time. We need to educate the officers already out there. … Talking about (PTSD) is not a sign of weakness.”

Heidi Rogers is also now an outspoken critic of mental health stigma in policing.

“I think the police expected I wouldn’t say anything, (that) I’d climb into bed and pull the sheets over my head,” she said. “I spoke out and I’ll continue to speak out.”