OPP launching internal review of officer suicides

OPP commissioner Vince Hawkes says the force will conduct an internal review of member suicides and attempted suicides after three officers recently took their own lives.

'We deal with the best and worst of humanity, and it can take its toll'

OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes says the force has made strides in its mental health services for members, but that more needs to be done. (CBC)

The OPP's commissioner, Vince Hawkes, says the force will conduct an internal review of member suicides and attempted suicides after three officers recently took their own lives. 

In the last 30 years, at least 24 active members and nine retired members have reportedly committed suicide, he said. 

Three of those deaths happened in the past month including Sgt. Sylvain Routhier, who was described as a "gentle soul" and loving father of three by his widow. Sarah Routhier shared her story publicly over concerns that if her husband could struggle with a mental illness, then anyone could. 

In response to the deaths, Hawkes held a press conference in Orillia, Ont., Thursday, saying he's launching a new strategy to review barriers OPP members face accessing the force's mental health services.

"Clearly we need to do more," said Hawkes. "There are serious gaps and barriers that require further review and examination."

"We deal with the best and worst of humanity, and it can take its toll on the wellbeing of our members. I know from personal experience the impacts of cumulative, critical incidents and operational stress, all that can have an impact on a police officer."

The three-part plan that includes reviewing the force's suicide cases and attempts over the past five years. Hawkes has tasked a detective superintendent within the OPP to find links and commonalities between the deaths by looking at the stresses officers faced, the psychological services they accessed, and their training. The province's chief coroner is assisting with the review. 
Sylvain Routhier took his own life on July 31, 2018, in Belleville, Ont. He had been a member of the Ontario Provincial Police for 13 years. (Sarah Routhier)

Current system too complicated

Hawkes said the force has made strides helping officers access mental health services since a 2012 report by the province's watchdog revealed the force had failed to support police officers. However, it's not enough,he said. 

"We don't have to throw a couple sticks of dynamite and start from scratch," he said. "We have a very, very good process … what we have to do is add components to that."

The current services include a wellness program, mental health training, and a website that allows members to screen themselves for signs of distress. At least 95 people have used the anonymous online tool that encourages early intervention, said Hawkes. 

One of the biggest concerns he's heard since the recent suicides is that the current triage system of accessing help is "very complicated."

"If they're in trouble they don't want to get on a phone line and be put off to somebody else," he said. "There's a high sense of frustration and that adds to the stress."

"What we need to do is make it simple," he added. 

He also noted that could include helping members with their Workplace Safety and Insurance Board claims.

Worst fear is officers losing their gun

Officers are also afraid of coming forward with mental health issues because of the stigma, said Hawkes. 

When he was a young officer 30 years ago, there was an attitude that if you wanted "to be a good cop" you had to "get over it," he said. That meant not talking about difficult incidents. 

One of the worst fears I hear from members is 'if I say that I'm going to lose my gun- OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes 

"Unfortunately, there's still some of that [attitude] left," said Hawkes.

"One of the worst fears I hear from members is 'if I say that, I'm going to lose my gun.' The gun is the authority of the police officer. It's the perception that if I lose my gun, I lose my authority as a police officer, and that's devastating for a police officer."

Hawkes said the force needs to make sure that if it takes an officer's gun, it's for the right reason — and that the officer has the chance to get it back. He says there have been many success stories of officers who have come back to work after suffering from a mental illness and have been successful in their careers. But those stories aren't getting out there, he said. 

OPP commissioner Vince Hawkes says many officers still choose not to talk about their struggles out of fear they may lose their gun. 0:54

'We deal with the best and worst of humanity'

The OPP's new approach will also include evaluating the current system and holding mental health round tables.

An assessment team made up of internal OPP members, family members, external stakeholders and mental health experts will focus on breaking the silence. The force hopes members will come forward and tell their stories and share the challenges they've faced. 

Everything is on the table to fix problems within the system, said Hawkes. He hopes that in less than a year the OPP is in a position to change things. 

The press conference ended with Hawkes pleading with OPP members to seek help if they are in distress.

"No one should suffer in silence," he said. "I want you to talk to somebody — a friend, a colleague, a supervisor, a loved one. We need to do this together."

Need help? Here are some mental health resources:

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention website

Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)
Ottawa Suicide Prevention: 613-238-3311