Nfld. & Labrador

Mental Illness Awareness Week: Suicide of Cpl. Trevor O'Keefe weighs in background

It's Mental Illness Awareness Week in Canada, and the recent suicide of RCMP Cpl. Trevor O'Keefe is firmly in the background as first responders, advocates mark the occasion.

RNC chief says supports for officers much better than they were in the past

RNC Chief Joe Boland and Paula Corcoran-Jacobs, executive director of the mental health advocacy group CHANNAL, spoke with reporters Monday about Mental Illness Awareness Week. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

It's Mental Illness Awareness Week in Canada, and the recent suicide of RCMP Cpl. Trevor O'Keefe is firmly in the background as first responders and advocates mark the occasion.

"That saddens me. I understand it. I understand the pressure of these jobs," Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Chief Joe Boland told reporters Monday.

"Some suicides are preventable. Unfortunately not all are," added Paula Corcoran-Jacobs, executive director with CHANNAL, the province's only mental health advocacy group operated entirely by people with mental illnesses.

Mental health in the spotlight

O'Keefe was a veteran Mountie who became known throughout the province as the force's media relations officer in recent years.

He took his own life on Sept. 11 following a long struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition better known by its acronym PTSD.

Mounties salute during the funeral for Cpl. Trevor O'Keefe, who took his own life Sept. 11 following a long battle with PTSD. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

His death is casting a big shadow this week as the campaign to raise awareness about mental health garners more and more of the spotlight, and leaders like Boland speak publicly about the challenges.

"Sometimes you just don't have the answers. There are no answers," Boland replied when asked about O'Keefe's death.

Just as with other illnesses, people sometimes lose the battle, Corcoran-Jacobs said.

"I say this as a stark reminder for us that we can never give up the battle in terms of our own selves fighting the illness, but also as a society trying to make it better. It's an evolution. Are we where we need to be? Absolutely not. But we're heading in the right direction," she said.

Stigma slowly lifting, supports improving

Both said the awareness of mental health issues is improving, and the stigma for those suffering is also slowly lifting.

Corcoran-Jacobs said a "Warm Line" established by CHANNAL — the Consumers' Health Awareness Network Newfoundland and Labrador — 15 months ago is proof that people are more willing to ask for help.

She said the service has received nearly 10,000 calls, which is testing the group's ability to meet the demand.

The Warm Line can be reached by calling 709-753-2560, or toll free at 1-855-753-2560.

Corcoran-Jacobs said roughly 20 per cent of people in a typical workplace suffer with mental illness, but that number is nearly double for organizations like the RNC and RCMP.

O'Keefe's death is highlighting the fact that first responders are not immune to the struggle.

"It's unrealistic for me or anybody in society to think you can put on a uniform and you're going to be different," said Boland.

It's unrealistic for me or anybody in society to think you can put on a uniform and you're going to be different.- RNC Chief Joe Boland

The approach to detecting and treating stress injuries is also changing, Boland added.

He said psychological assessments are now mandatory for officers who respond to traumatic emergencies, and the screening for new police officers has also intensified.

The RNC is learning from organizations like the Canadian military and groups like CHANNAL, said Boland.

"We don't expect our officers to deal with this alone. We know this is a tough job and we're going to do what we can to support them when they get exposed to these types of injuries."