Panel on police suicides says officers need better mental health support

Police officers need better and clearer mental health and suicide prevention resources, says a report by a panel assembled by Ontario's chief coroner that gives 14 recommendations.

Ontario coroner's panel recommends tracking 1st responder suicides, new provincial mental health agency

Ontario's Chief Coroner Dr. Dirk Huyer speaks to the media in Toronto on April 27, 2018. Police officers need better and clearer mental health and suicide prevention resources, recommends a report by a panel assembled by Huyer. (Galit Rodan/Canadian Press)

Police officers need better and clearer mental health and suicide prevention resources, recommends a report by a panel assembled by Ontario's chief coroner.

The report, released Wednesday, was written by members of the policing community and mental health professionals on the panel, which was formed after nine officers killed themselves in 2018.

Its release comes just days after an Ottawa police officer died by suicide at police headquarters on Friday.

The report stresses the need to end the stigma around mental health issues for police members, from before they are recruited, through basic training and throughout their careers, as well as for members of the public.

Police officers "have this commitment to duty, despite the personal costs that may occur," said Dr. Dirk Hyer, Ontario's chief coroner.

"[Police officers] are people who have great responsibility within our society and yet they're also under significant scrutiny and accountability for their action," he told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

"When they have difficulties, whether they be mental health issues or others, then it's very binary in the decision: they're fit for duty or they're not."

    When they're declared not fit for duty, he said that decision can change their identity as an officer or as a person and significantly add to their struggles.

    Changing attitudes

    Part of the problem stems from the fact that around 40 per cent of calls police officers attend are mental health calls, he said.

    When officers are suffering, they don't want to associate themselves with the type of people they see on those calls, which leads them to deny their symptoms.

    Officers can both stigmatize themselves and face stigmatization by others within their organization. But by normalizing mental health issues they can then be looked at the same as a physical injury, allowing the officers to receive treatment early and being able to return to work.

    Death review committee

    Among the panel's 14 recommendations is the creation of an Ontario Police Members Mental Health Collaborative, made up of people from police service boards, police associations, police officers, their family members and mental health providers.

    The group would be charged with finding gaps and overlaps in the mental health support network, and report on any progress twice a year to the office of the solicitor general, who's responsible for law enforcement in Ontario.

    It would also aim to work at reducing barriers for members needing immediate help, by encouraging a "no-wrong-door" mindset across the province where there aren't any barriers to getting mental health support.

    The panel suggests the need to ensure suitable staffing, so that if an officer needs to take time off for their mental health, others aren't overworked.

    Another recommendation is that the office of the chief coroner develop policy to keep track of any first-responder suicides, and hold a "death review committee" for each police officer.

    Need for better resources

    The panel found the nine offices who took their lives had one main thing in common; stop-start patterns in their treatment that lasted months or even years.

    Barriers to access are a continuing problem, whether it be members working out of smaller detachments, in rural settings, when they don't have access to outside psychologists or have limited benefits.

    It also found there were problems with officers being treated by clinicians with little to no expertise on policing or trauma, clinicians refusing to provide care at fees paid out by insurance companies or the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board or the affordability of mental health services in general. Furthermore, officers and their families often have to choose between short-term high quality care or longer-term "questionable" care, the report said.

    The panel calls for universal access to quality care for police and civilian members in Ontario with mental health professionals who have knowledge of policing and trauma. 

    In a statement to CBC News, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said the ministry is reviewing the panel's recommendations.

    She said the province is "committed to providing resources and supports for officers and their families," pointing to internal programs offered through the Ontario Provincial Police and external ones with organizations, such as Badge of Life and Wounded Warriors.

    "The brave men and women of our police services put their lives on the line each and every day to protect and serve the people of Ontario, and we are determined to do all we can to ensure they remain healthy and ready to serve."

    The OPP said in a statement that this report, its internal review of deaths by suicide and an ongoing independent review of its workplace culture will help it better support its membership.

    Need help? Here are some mental health resources:

    • Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553).
    • Ottawa Suicide Prevention: 613-238-3311.
    • The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention has a list of resources across the country.

    WIth files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning


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