OPP commissioner announces internal review of officer suicides
Published Thursday, August 30, 2018 9:39AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, August 30, 2018 6:02PM EDT
Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Vincent Hawkes has announced an internal review of officer suicides after three officers took their own lives in as many weeks this month.
The review, which will look at OPP member suicides and attempted suicides over the past five years, is part of what Hawkes described as a “three-part approach” to addressing the recent deaths. At a news conference Thursday, he said the review will attempt to identify what could have prevented the suicides and what gaps exist in current mental health supports.
Hawkes also announced the formation of a series of mental health roundtables featuring officers, their family members and outside stakeholders that will help form the basis of a report for the commissioner’s committee, as well as the modernization of the Safeguard Program, which monitors the mental health of officers working in high-risk areas such as forensic identification and child sex exploitation.
Hawkes said he expected the entire process to take less than a year to complete, but added that if there is a change that can be implemented quickly, he won’t wait until the final recommendations are out.
“We owe it to our members to get this right,” he said.
According to some studies, first responders, including police officers and firefighters, are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. Their rates of post-traumatic stress disorder are also twice the national average.
Hawkes said that in the last 30 years, the force has documentation showing that 24 active members and nine retired members have died by suicide.
More recently, three OPP officers have died by suicide in three weeks, rocking the provincial police service and sparking calls to overhaul its existing mental health support system. Those officers include Det. Paul Horne, Sgt. Sylvain Routhier and Const. Joshua De Bock.
Hawkes said the stigma associated with mental illness, worries that coming forward could their jeopardize careers and an overall frustration with the process of seeking help is preventing many officers from getting the assistance they need.
“I urge you to come forward, to seek support,” Hawkes said. “No one should suffer in silence.”
Robert Jamieson, the head of the OPP Association, sent a letter to officers last week also imploring them to speak to someone if they feel they need help.
“Please know that you are valued as a human being and know that you matter,” Jamieson wrote in the letter.
Bruce Chapman, the president of the Police Association of Ontario, told CTV News Channel that while he welcomes Hawkes’ announcement, he feels a “year is too long” to implement his three-part strategy for addressing suicides in the profession.
“When we sign up for this job, we know what we inherit when we go to these scenes,” Chapman said, “but we need to do more to get the help for these officers as soon as we can.”
Bridget, a retired OPP officer who wished to be identified only by her first name, told CTV Toronto that she knows from her own personal experience that more needs to be done to help those who are struggling.
When a colleague committed suicide, Bridget said that she began to feel “that I could next,” but when she spoke to a social worker provided to her by the OPP, she felt her concerns weren’t being taken seriously when she was told to just do yoga.
Sgt. Routhier’s widow, Sara Routhier, told CTV News that she believes her husband spent years repressing emotions over his decade-long career as an OPP officer in Belleville, Ont, worried about the stigma that can be associated with mental illness.
When he told her in April that he was having suicidal thoughts, she rushed him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
Four months later, he took his own life.
She hopes that speaking candidly about his story will help prevent another tragedy.
“If someone doesn’t come forward to say that they need help, then no one is going to know that they need help,” she said. “It starts with trying to bring awareness and ending that stigma and letting people know that it’s okay to seek help.”