A simple wooden bench was unveiled on the Pathway of Memories outside the OPP General Headquarters in Orillia Tuesday.
It was placed there by the Simcoe County Suicide Awareness Council (SCSAC) as part of their long-term initiative to increase awareness about the impact of suicide and the importance of trying to prevent people from taking their own life.
Its placement at OPP Headquarters is meaningful; suicide among first responders is higher than average and, historically, those organizations have struggled to deal with the issue.
“This is a very important day: World Suicide Prevention Day,” said OPP Commissioner Thomas Carrique. “We have to take a moment to look at what’s happening internationally and in our own community of first responders.”
He said over the past 20 years, the OPP has lost 37 members to suicide. This year alone, in France, Carrique noted, 64 police officers have died due to suicde.
“We can’t start to make our profession safer, we can’t start to make a difference until we can find the courage to talk about suicide, to make sure that those who are vulnerable, those that are at risk have access to the help they need,” said Carrique during Tuesday's ceremony.
He said it’s also critical to support “the survivors left behind by suicide, that they have the support, they have the assistance, they have the family and love they require to carry on day in and day out.”
He said it’s his goal to ensure the OPP provides “the support necessary" to support officers and civilians.
“Days like today will help break down the stigma and ensure we continue the conversation and that we continue to get stronger not only individually but as organizations, as professions and as families.”
Cathy Cleary gave a large group of OPP officers, support staff, emergency personnel from other agencies and civilians gathered for Tuesday’s ceremony a heart-felt look into what it’s like to endure the suicide of a loved one.
Three years ago, Cathy’s brother, John, died from suicide. He was, she recalled, a good person, a loyal friend and a skilled carpenter.
But he was also “a person with the disease of depression and, in the end, it convinced him to take his own life,” she said.
“Grief of suicide loss is like no other grief I have ever experienced,” she said, noting the “initial shock” turned into a feeling of a nightmare that you can’t wake up from.
She said she blamed herself and others, she dealt with the stigma and “ignorant comments” in addition to pain, numbness and the toll of unanswered questions.
“Wish as I might, I will never be the same as I was before the suicide,” she said. “It changed the person I used to be.”
However, she said she is finding a “way forward” and “learning to live my life anew.”
She said the support of the SCSAC has been critical.
“The peer support I have recieved from the Simcoe County Suicide Awareness Council has given me a hand to hold while I learn to be this new person that I am.”
Bernadette Copeland, who heads up the SCSAC, said that’s why the group exists. It’s also why the group has been working hard to install benches in various communities.
The bench unveiled at OPP Headquarters is the fourth the group has created; in past years, benches have been placed in Barrie, Angus and Midland.
“What we want with these benches is we want people to have conversations, to start talking about suicide, to talk about wellness, to talk about how you’re doing, to be open and be good listeners,” said Copeland.
“It’s important to start that conversation.”
Mayor Steve Clarke agreed.
“Almost everyone in this room knows someone struggling with mental health issues (and) most of us know people who have taken their own lives,” said the Mayor.
He said Tuesday’s event helps to “destigmatize mental health issues” and will pay significant dividends.
Like all of the speakers, he commended Copeland and the council members for their work.
”This is a very meaningful ceremony,” said Clarke. “What you’re doing by putting physical infrastructure in and around the area will evoke thought and conversation for years to come.”