OPP overhauling mental supports in wake of suicides

Ontario's provincial police force is expected to announced changes to its mental health support system in response to the recent suicides of three officers.

Widow wants force to set aside time for officers to talk about difficult calls

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)

Ontario's provincial police force is expected to announce changes to its mental health support system in response to the recent suicides of three officers.

OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes is expected to announce details later this week. So far, Hawkes's only public comments about the deaths have been on Twitter, where he wrote he was "deeply devastated by the recent loss of three of our members."

Hawkes also vowed to examine any barriers preventing members from seeking help.

The widow of one of the deceased officers is calling on the OPP to set aside time in each officer's day to allow them to discuss difficult calls with their peers.

Sarah Routhier's husband, Sgt. Sylvain Routhier, was 37 when he took his life on July 31, after more than a decade as a OPP officer in Belleville, Ont. 

She said her husband was a gentle soul and loving father of three who coached all of his kids' hockey teams and built a large backyard rink.

"He would have been the last person anybody would have suspected to commit suicide or to struggle through a mental illness," Routhier said. "This can really happen to anybody if they don't take some preventative measures to make sure they're OK with their job."

Sylvain Routhier leaves behind his wife and three children. His spouse Sarah says he was an "incredible man and husband" who loved his job. (Sarah Routhier)

'They're expected to keep those emotions in'

Routhier spoke to CBC News from Camp FACES in Barrie, Ont., where she and her three children are getting support from professionals and other families of first responders who have lost loved ones.

She's sharing her husband's story publicly to prevent another tragedy.

Two other officers, including another from eastern Ontario, also took their own lives in the past month.

"First responders are human beings as well," Routhier said. "They see a lot of very difficult things day after day with their jobs. They're expected to keep those emotions in when they're dealing with a call.

"There's very little time to deal with those emotions afterwards because then they've got to go to the next call."

Sarah Routhier says her husband had an infectious personality and was a great police officer. At home he was a kind person who loved to spend time with his children. (Sarah Routhier)

Routhier's husband trained to become a police officer in Ottawa at Algonquin College, then started his career working security at the House of Commons as part of the prime minister's security detail in the early 2000s. 

He later landed a job with the OPP and worked as an officer across the province responding to car crashes, assaults and domestic violence. He then joined the tactics and rescue unit, where he dealt with high-risk calls including the Parliament Hill shootings in 2014.

Over the years, her husband didn't talk about being stressed or having a difficult time at work, she said, except for a few moments where he would talk about hard calls.

Then, in April, her husband came home from work and told her he wasn't feeling like himself. He felt stressed and hadn't been sleeping.

The next day he told Routhier he was having suicidal thoughts.

Husband worried about stigma

Routhier brought her husband to the hospital and he started the process of doctor's visits and taking medication. But he had a "very difficult" time with having to take stress leave from work, she said. 

Her husband had just been promoted to sergeant and didn't want to let his detachment down. 

"My husband was very worried about what other people were going to think of him for being off work or admitting he had a mental illness," Routhier said.

She convinced him to seek help through the OPP. He met with the force's wellness unit and told her the peer support was helping.

But the next week he disappeared and was later found dead. 

'It was completely not on my radar'

She said that despite his struggles, she never imagined this would happen. 

"It was completely not on my radar, even though he had spoken about suicidal thoughts a few months earlier. There were no warning signs," she said.  

Routhier said she may never know why her husband took his own life. She said she doesn't blame OPP, but does hope the police force can learn from his death. 

Speaking about difficult calls sooner rather than later would be a start, she said. 

Removing the stigma about going on sick leave for mental health issues and making spouses aware of what resources are available would also help, she said.

Sarah Routhier hopes that by sharing her husband's story it can help remove the stigma around mental health issues and prevent another tragedy. (Sarah Routhier)

OPP support programs

In a statement to CBC News, the OPP said it offers a number of resources for members, including peer support programs, mandatory mental health awareness and resiliency training, and an employee and family assistance program.

The force also said the OPP commissioner will be making an announcement later this week about what the OPP is doing in response to the three deaths.

The focus needs to be on learning from what happened to bring about change, according to OPP union president Rob Jamieson.

He wrote a letter to members talking about his own journey. 

"I have experienced extreme trauma as a result of doing my job as a police officer and four years ago I needed to step away," wrote Jamieson.

"This has been a personal journey, and it is difficult to share this with thousands of people I do not know; however, I do so in the hope that it may give some strength to hang on, to speak to someone and to know you are not alone."

In an interview with CBC, Jamieson said OPP members often work in communities that don't have the same number of resources as bigger cities.

Need help? Here are some mental health resources in the National Capital Region:

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

With files from Amanda Pfeffer