'More work to do': Police re-examining mental health supports after suicide

Interim police Chief Steve Bell says the force will take a new look at the mental health supports it provides officers and civilian members after an officer took his life over the weekend.

Det. Thomas Roberts took his own life Friday inside Ottawa police headquarters

Thomas Roberts, 35, was part of a team of officers who ran into a burning building in 2018 and fought a fire to rescue a man. He was awarded a Chief’s Commendation for that act. (Ottawa police )

The Ottawa Police Service is set to refocus its efforts on ensuring its members are accessing mental health supports after an officer took his life over the weekend.

Det. Thomas Roberts, 35, died by suicide inside Ottawa police headquarters at 474 Elgin St. on Friday evening. 

His death comes almost five years to the day that another officer, Staff Sgt. Kal Ghadban, died by suicide inside the same building.

It also comes on the same weekend police officers from across the country are gathering in Ottawa for the Police and Peace Officers' National Memorial Day — a day intended to honour those who've died in the line of duty.

'A refocused effort'

Now, Ottawa police want to ensure the programs put in place after Ghadban's death are working and that members are accessing them without concerns that doing so could affect their employment.

"You're going to a see a refocused effort by us to make sure we're supporting the members to remove those barriers," said Steve Bell, the force's interim police chief.

"We're working with their families to make sure that we can make sure our members come to work whole every day and are as healthy as they can be to do this really tough job."

After Ghadban's death, Ottawa police created a peer support program, a wellness program and an employee assistance program, while also making sure psychologists were easily accessible to those who needed them.

Bell said while the force continues to try to create programs that meet officers' needs, Roberts' death on Friday shows "we have more work to do."

"We send members out every day to go and deal with tragic human suffering. It takes a toll on you," he said. "We know as a profession, we need to provide all of the supports that we can to make sure that they have a way to go and talk and help to deal with some of those really traumatic incidents."

Interim police Chief Steve Bell says the Ottawa Police Service will be refocusing its efforts to ensure officers are accessing mental health support programs. (Kimberley Molina/CBC )

Officers 'looking for answers'

Incidents like these can be traumatizing for Ottawa police members, said Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association.

"There's frustration. There's confusion. At times like this, we have members looking for answers," Skof said, noting those answers aren't always available.

Skof also agrees access to support programs remains an issue, largely because of the stigma around mental health.

"You can have all the programming available, but you have to make sure that there's buy-in from the members who are going to use it. And that's something that we're very conscious of," he said.

Ottawa Police Association President Matt Skof says there's often frustration and confusion after an officer takes their own life. (CBC)

Coroner conducting review

The problem of officers taking their lives isn't unique to Ottawa police.

In 2018, there were nine police officer suicides. The number was considered unusually high and prompted Ontario's chief coroner to conduct a review. 

A panel was convened earlier this year and is set to release its report "very soon," according to a statement from the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario.

Ontario Provincial Police also announced in August 2018 that it would conduct an internal review of officer suicides after it found at least 24 active members and nine retired members had taken their own lives over a 30-year period.

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