TORONTO – Three officer suicides in as many weeks have prompted a police union leader to write a deeply personal letter urging his members to reach out if they find themselves in emotional distress.
The deaths of the Ontario officers have focused attention on the stresses first responders face and the difficulties of persuading them to find help, Rob Jamieson said.
“I write this message with tears in my eyes, not in thinking of my own journey, but of those we have lost and their families left behind,” wrote Jamieson, head of the Ontario Provincial Police Association.
“This has been a personal journey and it is difficult to share this … however, I do so in the hope that it may give some strength to hang on, to speak to someone, and to know you are not alone.”
Jamieson told The Canadian Press that he wanted his almost 9,000 members to know that if a 20-plus-year veteran like himself could run into difficulty, as he did four years ago, anyone can. Among other things, he cited the cumulative effects of investigating sexual assaults of children, dealing with violence and threats from outlaw motorcycle gangs, and responding to fatal car crashes.
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“You see some of the worst things that you ever want to see,” he said. “I’m not a doctor, but there is just no way that you cannot be affected by these things that you deal with on a daily basis – that just are not normal to see and are just not normal to experience.”
Vince Savoia, executive director of the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, which focuses on the mental health of first responders, said definitive statistics on first responder suicides are hard to come by because of a reluctance to report them and because coroners don’t necessarily track the deaths by occupation.
However, the suicide rate among police officers is roughly double the overall national average of 10 per 100,000 people, according to Tema. For paramedics, the number is five times the average, reaching 56 per 100,000 in 2016.
Steven Skoworodko, who speaks for paramedics in Saskatchewan, said a colleague in Regina died by suicide on Wednesday, the third or fourth in the province in the past few years. Dedicated mental health professionals who understand the particular stresses of the job are sorely needed, he said.
Savoia, a paramedic himself, said he battled for years after responding as a 27-year-old to the killing of Tema Conter, 25, in Toronto in 1988.
“When I looked at Tema for the first time, I thought it was my fiancee that had been raped and murdered,” he said.
“Just making that one connection…caused me to really struggle with guilt at not being able to save Tema’s life.”
What’s needed, he said, is a culture change in how we view mental health issues given the stigma they can carry, especially for first responders.
“We all feel that we have to maintain this bravado,” Savoia said. “There have been documented cases unfortunately across the country where first responders have come forward and asked for help and they’ve been terminated from their jobs (or) on occasion are ridiculed by their own colleagues.”
In another case, two RCMP officers sued the force for how it dealt with the trauma they suffered after responding to the killing of four fellow officers near Mayerthorpe, Alta., in 2005.
Savoia said first responders must be made aware resources are out there – from crisis lines to emergency departments to employee assistance plans. Tema itself runs an “under-utilized” confidential peer-support line for first responders that takes 10 to 15 calls a month, he said.
“First responders just tend to feel very alone and they tend to feel very isolated when they’re struggling with mental-health issues.”
Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Vince Hawkes declined an interview request pending funeral arrangements for the latest officer suicide.
“We are deeply devastated by the recent loss of three of our members,” Hawkes said in a statement.
“A tremendous void has been left behind and it brings about many questions that may never be answered.”
Hawkes also said he wanted to examine the barriers that prevent members from seeking help.
Jamieson said he hoped Ontario’s Community Safety Minister Michael Tibollo would convene a summit on first responder mental health that would include spouses of those who had killed themselves.
“It’s time to get real on these issues,” he said. “Uncomfortable as this may be, we need to have this conversation because we don’t want to ever see this happen again.”
Tibollo’s spokeswoman, Rita Smith, said on Thursday that the minister was trying to identify gaps with a view to fixing them and would have no immediate comment.