Mental health groups offer support to police, family members after officer dies in line of duty

Support groups are reaching out to Toronto police officers and their families with mental health and counselling resources this weekend as they deal with the death of one of their own in the line of duty.

Groups offer 24/7 support line, help with finding counselling

Flowers lying outside Toronto police 52 Division in honour of Const. Jeffrey Northrup. Mental health organizations say support is available for police officers and family members. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Support groups are reaching out to Toronto police officers and their families with mental health and counselling resources this weekend as they deal with the death of one of their own in the line of duty.

Const. Jeffrey Northrup died in hospital after he was struck by a vehicle in the city hall parkade near Queen Street West and Bay Street early Friday. Investigators have called the incident an "intentional and deliberate act." A 31-year-old man has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with the case. He appeared in court on Friday and has been remanded in custody until his next court appearance on July 23, police said.

"I lived through several police officers losing their lives in the line of duty," said Dave McLennan, the president of the mental health organization Boots on the Ground and a former officer with Peel Regional Police.

"It's a tremendous tragedy and it just brings back those memories. And I know that a lot of police officers are feeling it right now. It's a difficult time for all police officers across the city and across the country."

Const. Jeffrey Northrup died after being struck by a vehicle in the parking garage at city hall on Friday morning, police say. A member of 52 Division since 2008, Northrup leaves behind his wife and three children, and his mother. (Toronto Police Service/Twitter)

Jon Reid, the president of the Toronto Police Association, said on Friday that the organization will be providing support to Northrup's relatives and other Toronto police officers, including mental health resources, grief counselling and outreach programs.

The Toronto Police Service has also created an online book of condolences where people can pay their respects to Northrup's family, friends and colleagues. 

Boots on the Ground is a free peer-to-peer support network launched in 2018 for police, corrections officers and other first responders across Ontario. Their anonymous telephone helpline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

McLennan began Boots on the Ground after 30 years working as a police officer. He said while employers offer wellness programs, many first responders wouldn't go to those in-house services for help because of the stigma around mental health.

"Nobody goes through a 30-year career as a first responder without having some ups and downs. And unfortunately, I saw some people struggle with different things with sleep and [post-traumatic stress disorder] and substance abuse and in the worst cases, suicide," he said.

"We're used to being the helpers, and not so comfortable asking for help ourselves. And we have to make that more normal, too, because first responders are human. When they take the uniform off, they're just like everybody else."

After a 30-year career with Peel Regional Police, Dave McLellan saw a need for peer support among first responders. (Submitted )

McLennan said Boots On The Ground has fielded more than 900 calls since 2018 and the need has only grown as the pandemic has put first responders under a tremendous amount of stress. Last month was the group's busiest ever with 78 calls, he added. 

"Unfortunately, people still sometimes look at mental health as a weakness, and it certainly is not a weakness. It's a strength to be able to reach out and say, 'Hey, I need a hand right now.'"

Understanding 'first-responder culture' is key

Kristal Jones, the president and co-founder of the organization Toronto Beyond the Blue, said she worked with Northrup on cases when she was an investigator with a telecommunications company.

"He was a good person, he was a great dad, he was proud, he loved his family," she said. "This is a huge loss."

Beyond the Blue provides resources and peer support to civilian and uniformed members of the Toronto Police Service, including help finding a mental health professional. It's support that Jones says will be crucial right now.

Jones co-founded the organization in 2017 when she had difficulty finding support for her own husband, who is a detective constable. It's now a national not-for-profit with chapters across Canada.

Kristal Jones poses for a portrait in Toronto in March 2021. Jones co-founded Toronto Beyond the Blue, a not-for-profit that offers peer support and mental health resources to members of police services and their families. (The Canadian Press/Chris Young)

"Being able to access vetted professionals — people who are trauma-informed and understand first-responder culture — is really important," Jones said. 

"Where a member of Toronto Police Service would experience six, seven or eight critical or traumatic incidents within a week's time, the average person might experience only one or two traumatic incidents in their life."

Beyond the Blue offers help to families who need help supporting a police officer who has experienced a traumatic event, as well as families who have lost someone who was a police officer.

Jones said they offer educational workshops for families to help them recognize the signs of post-traumatic stress and to avoid getting burned out themselves.

"When I saw my husband changing, he wasn't the man that I married. He was angry, he withdrew, he didn't want to do the things that brought him joy anymore. We didn't go anywhere. He would have rage," she said. 

Jones said these conversations and check-ins need to continue for the long term, because symptoms can appear far after a traumatic event takes place.

"This could be two weeks, it could be a month, it could be six months before you start to notice that, 'Hey, I'm not okay. This is really bothering me.'"

Boots on the Ground can be reached at 1-833-677-2668 and The Toronto Beyond the Blue helpline is available at 647-249-7121.

With files from Jessica Ng