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PTSD awareness raised by judge's compassion in Ron Francis case

11/04/2014 04:10 EST | Updated 01/04/2015 05:59 EST
New Brunswick Judge William McCarroll is being applauded for showing compassion in his handling of the case of the late RCMP Cpl. Ron Francis, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The provincial court judge was scheduled to sentence Francis on Monday for two counts of assaulting fellow officers who tried to take him for a mental health assessment and one count of breaching an undertaking to not possess or consume alcohol and non-prescription drugs.

But Francis, who gained national attention when he smoked medicinal marijuana in his RCMP ceremonial red serge as a way to bring attention to the plight of Mounties like himself suffering from PTSD, committed suicide on Oct. 6. He was 43.

Instead of quietly accepting the customary Crown motion to withdraw the charges against the deceased, McCarroll commented that Francis should never have ended up in court and that he would have allowed him to walk out with his respect and no criminal record.

He said Francis provided exemplary service during his 21-year career and his "uncharacteristic actions" were, in his opinion, "a cry for help from someone desperately trying to deal with the ravages of post-traumatic stress syndrome."

Fredericton psychologist Joan Wright believes McCarroll made a major contribution to the understanding of PTSD with his comments from the bench.

"My hope is that it will help people understand and take a stronger look at what PTSD really is — from the researchers, to the clinicians, to the media — and to bring heart to the situation," she said.

"And I think that's what Judge McCarroll did, was to really come at this and say, 'Let's look at this compassionately and see what we can do to help, so that we don't have any other of our first responders and military members end their own life."

Wright says the behaviours of someone with PTSD are "the tip of the iceberg." It's like their brain is in overdrive all of the time, and the judge acknowledged Francis was caught in its grip.

"The central nervous system gets stuck in the past, it's not in the present. And that's really the hallmark of PTSD, the brain is stuck in the past. so the mind can't stay in the present," said Wright.

Retired Canadian Forces veteran Jim Lowther, who also suffers from PTSD and refers to Francis as a "first responder brother," said it was good to hear about a judge who seems to understand the condition.

"I thought it was amazing. I thought it was great to see a judge speak to openly about something that has been kind of hush-hush," said Lowther, president of the Veterans Emergency Transition Services in Halifax.

"Since we started our organization, Vets Canada, things are a lot better when it comes to PTSD than they were, so it's really good to see him talk openly like that," he said.

McCarroll declined an interview request on Tuesday, saying the chance for him to comment was in court, before the charges were withdrawn and before he lost jurisdiction over the case.

But he did say that Francis was a fine officer who should have no shadow on his reputation.

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