In 2018, nine police officers died by suicide in Ontario.
A recent report released by the Ontario Chief Coroner’s office hopes to shine a light on the circumstances leading to the deaths of the officers, in an effort to support officers and first-responders struggling with mental-health issues and prevent more deaths by suicide.
However, a Barrie city councillor and mental-health advocate takes issue with too much talk and not enough action.
Dr. Lori Gray was one of the nine panel members asked to participate in the study – called Staying Visible, Staying Connected for Life. Gray is a psychologist in Barrie who specializes in working with first-responders and health-care professionals in Simcoe County and beyond. She specializes in best practices and early intervention.
“The chief coroner reached out to me directly and asked me to be on the panel,” said Gray. “I look at where there are gaps in the system and how (patients) get better access care.”
According to the report, the nine deaths by suicide occurred among serving and retired police officers in the province of Ontario was thought to be an unprecedented number; however, the report clarifies there is currently no requirement in Ontario for anyone to record or track deaths by suicide among first-responders, including police.
Therefore, it is not known if this number of suicides in a single year was higher than the number in previous years.
The report states the panellists recognize the observation may not break new ground in medical science.
“There are a lot of reports and there have been panels (on this). What was different about this one is, because it was through the office of the chief coroner, it allowed us to have access to information from all sources,” said Gray.
“It allowed us the most unrestricted access to be able to answer questions. Often times when we see reports generated, they’re from one perspective or another. For me, it was unique in that sense.
“We also had anonymity to do so without influence. Our identities weren’t disclosed until the report went public, and I think that was a really important part of the process to protect integrity,” she added.
Gray felt this report stands apart from others that tackle similar issues.
“The difference with this report is it identified unique and increased risk for police officers, and first-responders as a whole, through three unique pathways,” said Gray.
According to the report, the pathways are acute mental-health issues often with associated substance-use disorders, lost or diminished access to timely and quality care and essential supports, and actual or perceived emotional disconnection from family, friends and organization.
The report qualifies that the emotional disconnection pathway is often pushed to its end point by one or more precipitating events, sometimes at work, and more often in personal and family life.
“None of these officers died without risk indicators,” said Gray. “Not doing anything isn’t a viable option and there were multiple potential points of intervention across all aspects of the system.”
Coun. Natalie Harris, Barrie city councillor and advocate for mental-health awareness, found herself frustrated by the report.
As a former paramedic who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2014, forcing her to take leave from her job, Harris has experienced the first-responder world from both the inside and the outside.
“I dove into the world of peer support and service care for first-responders and, at first, there wasn’t very much done because there wasn’t any provincial legislation helping first responders with PTSD, or federal legislation,” said Harris.
Harris worked to help get Bill 163 implemented in Ontario — the Supporting Ontario's First Responders Act (PTSD) — and C211 — Federal Framework on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Act — off the ground.
“They’ve both caused an increase in the examination of why death by suicide occurs in the first-responder world,” said Harris.
From her own personal experiences, Harris sees issues she thinks aren’t addressed enough in the report, such as difficulty filing insurance and WSIB claims, a lack of peer support and 'sanctuary trauma'.
“Sanctuary trauma is basically a feeling of abandonment from a family that might be your workplace. A lot of times, it’s harsher when (you’re in a job related to) health care and wellness,” she said. “We think we’re in this environment of care and compassion, but when we’re off relating to a mental illness, so often we hear nothing from our employer and we’re left to kind of fend for ourselves without any kind of direction.
Harris said there have already been a myriad of studies done nationally and internationally on the issue.
“There have already been studies done that say where the issues lie,” said Harris. “It’s frustrating for me. I just find we’re going in circles. We have the answers. So why aren’t we acting on them?”
“What are the actions?” she added. “I’m ready to shine a light on this because people are dying every day.”
According to the report, many police officers shared frustration with a mental-health revolving-door system, which can lead to feelings of hopelessness in dealing with their own struggles.
“They told us that they often become disillusioned about the effectiveness of mental-health care when they bring acutely mentally unwell people to hospital only to see them leave shortly afterwards with little to no change in their condition or circumstances,” reads the report.
While the stigma of mental-health struggles makes it difficult for officers to be open when they’re dealing with a mental-health issue, there are bigger issues at play.
“When combined with self-stigma, this fear of being the one to let down the team may be even greater for the officer with the mental health issue, no matter how mild or moderate, than it is for his or her colleagues,” reads the report.
With police resources being stretched thin across Ontario as it is, police members are burning out, many are becoming ill, and some are dying.
Recommendations for action included in the report are starting an Ontario Police Members Mental Health Collaborative (OPMMHC) as a standing body accountable to the deputy solicitor-general that will be responsible for implementing suggestions.
Another suggestion is for all police services in Ontario to develop and implement a comprehensive mental-health and wellness strategy by June 30, 2021, which will likely include the Office of the Chief Coroner establishing a policy in Ontario that requires all coroners to report and share information on any death by suicide of a first-responder and to initiate a death review committee in all cases.
The report also suggests all police services have a prepared organizational response plan designed to assist the bereaved in managing the immediate crisis of a death by suicide and coping with its long-term consequences.
“Policing as a system must adopt a no-wrong-door mindset in order to ensure that every member and family affected by mental-health issues, at their earliest presentation, faces no barriers in seeking out, accessing, and affording the care and treatment they require,” reads the report.
When contacted for an interview, a representative for OPP Commissioner Thomas Carrique declined the request, however sent a statement.
“The OPP has completed its internal review of suicide deaths of serving members (between 2012 and 2018), and examination of how we can better support our members’ mental health and well-being,” reads the statement.
“In conjunction with the just-released report, and the ongoing Province’s Independent Review of the OPP’s Workplace Culture, we will be reviewing all recommendations and working with the OPP Association, OPP Commissioned Officers’ Association, Ministry of the Solicitor General, and external partners Badge of Life Canada, Wounded Warriors and Boots on the Ground to improve our support to our dedicated members," the statement adds.
However, in September, on World Suicide Prevention Day, Carrique did talk about the issue during a ceremony at OPP Headquarters.
“We have to take a moment to look at what’s happening internationally and in our own community of first responders," Carrique said that day.
He said over the past 20 years, the OPP has lost 37 members to suicide.
“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.