In a time when police suicides outnumber deaths on duty, the late Hamilton police officer Ian Matthews’s death has once again cast a light on the stigma surrounding mental health in law enforcement.
Matthews shot himself at Hamilton police headquarters just after 1 p.m. Tuesday. The former staff sergeant died in hospital at about 10 p.m. that night, roughly nine hours later. Matthews was a dedicated 25-year veteran who had led the pioneering BEAR unit, had done stints in the homicide unit and was described by one person who knew him as one of the department's "all-stars." But that source also noted he had seen "things we can only imagine."
- READ MORE: Hamilton police officer Ian Matthews dies after shooting himself at central station
Halton Regional Police have been brought in to conduct a non-criminal investigation into the incident, which Hamilton police are calling a "sudden death." No one has officially ruled the death a suicide.
But in the wake of the tragic loss, past and present cops have a message for any law enforcement official dealing with mental health issues: don’t be afraid to speak up.
“Help is there. It’s all available,” retired police chief Brian Mullan told CBC Hamilton. “All it takes is that first step.”
Two Hamilton police officers committed suicide during Mullan’s tenure as chief. “Those were the two most difficult situations I’ve had to face in my policing career,” he said. “When you lose somebody, a lot of people grieve.”
“Right now, Hamilton police are grieving the loss of Ian.”
More suicides than cops killed on duty
According to a report issued just over a year ago by Ontario Ombudsman André Marin, 23 OPP officers have committed suicide since 1989, a total that exceeds the number of officers killed on duty over the same time period.
In the report, Marin talks about the "persistent stigma" against stress-related issues for cops. That stigma is waning, but still exists for officers, Mullan says.
“Police officers are there to protect and rescue people. As a result, you develop this kind of emotional armour,” he said. But officers don’t want to show any chinks in that armour, he added.
Eric Weaver knows all about the stigma that surrounds police officers when it comes to asking for help with a mental health issue. The retired sergeant with the Rochester, NY Police Department was repeatedly hospitalized over the course of his career because of depression and suicidal thoughts.
But everyone at work thought he was out with a back injury because of the stigma surrounding mental health and depression in law enforcement, he says.
“I could not let anybody know I was actually out with a mental health issue,” Weaver told Metro Morning Thursday.
“It was the stigma surrounding what would people say, losing my job, losing my gun, not being able to perform as a police sergeant,” he said. “All those things — and certainly the feelings of somebody thinking I was weak, and I couldn’t handle anything, and I wasn’t tough enough to be part of the job.”
Most officers not comfortable asking for help, retired cop says
But all that changed when a fellow officer and friend of his committed suicide in 2002. “I truly knew in that moment that I had to speak out,” he said. So he did — and created the Emotionally Disturbed Persons Response Team, a specialized unit within Rochester Police that responds to calls for individuals who are suicidal and mentally ill.
Weaver has created courses and seminars on mental health, cumulative stress, stigmas, depression, and suicide prevention and awareness for law enforcement officers and other emergency services personnel across the U.S. He says that police officers have to understand that mental illness is just like any other illness — because the vast majority of people still don’t want to talk about it.
“We don’t hesitate to get treatment for diabetes, we don’t hesitate to get treatment for heart disease — but when it comes to mental health issues because of the stigma, because of the shame and discrimination … society is very frightened sometimes to speak about that.”
'When a protector can’t protect themselves, it creates a conflict within.'- former Hamilton police chief Brian Mullan
Most officers just don’t feel comfortable asking for help, said retired police detective Kevin Bryan, who worked with York Regional Police for 30 years. “It’s almost like asking for help is like being a wimp,” Bryan said. “ You never feel comfortable. Your help is talking to your buddies on the force.”
There are more treatment options available for options than ever, Bryan says, but most officers never avail themselves of that service.
“Even if they offer the help, it’s seen as a weakness,” he said. “A lot of police officers … try to be invulnerable, even when they’re clearly vulnerable.”
Mullan says the only positive that could come from a police officer taking his own life is it could be a catalyst for more discussion that needs to occur around the issue. Law enforcement everywhere needs to be able to openly discuss acceptance of their peers who need support, he says.
“The solution is people recognizing the symptoms that cause people getting desperate,” he said. “When a protector can’t protect themselves, it creates a conflict within.”
“There is no easy fix. You can’t just swallow a pill and it goes away.”