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The next time, it might be you

November 2019

Thirty-seven. That’s how many OPP officers have taken their own lives in the past 30 years; with 15 in just the past 7 years.

This year alone, there have been three officers from the OPP alone; the most recent being Staff-Sergeant Jeff Harmer. There were 3 in just one month last year.

At the beginning of November, the Military Police Unit at Base Borden also lost one of their own to suicide. Petty Officer 2nd Class Andrew Cullum died on 1 November 2019, leaving behind a wife and 3 young children. He was 31 years old. I didn’t know him well, but I did see him occasionally on the base. I traded police patches with him on one occasion.

Back in September, Toronto Police Constable Vadym Martsenyuk and Ottawa Police Detective Thomas Roberts took their own lives one day apart.

OPP Constable Karen Anne Peoples took her own life on 1 June.

Ironically, Roberts and Martsenyuk’s deaths occurred just days before the Canadian Police & Peace Officer ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, an annual ceremony that honours police and peace officers killed in the line of duty. Sadly, this ceremony doesn’t include suicide deaths and no mention was made of either officer.

There is a crisis in policing and despite promises from chiefs of police and the OPP Commissioner to police associations, the losses continue at an alarming rate. If my count is correct, 6 officers have taken their own lives in this year alone. There is a mental health crisis in policing and it’s not getting any better.

Of course, suicide in policing is nothing new. How many suicides in the past were not reported?  How many were an “accidental” overdose of prescription medication?  How many times have we heard it said that someone “accidentally” shot themselves while cleaning their gun?

Former OPP Commissioner Vince Hawks ordered an internal report into the suicides of OPP officers, which was released back in the summer. I took part in the roundtable discussions held last year that make up the body of the report.

I don’t profess to have the answer to preventing any future officer suicide, but as a retired police officer who almost ate my gun, I can offer my perspective.

What I can say is that there are almost always signs; not necessarily of suicidal intentions, but signs that something may be wrong for that person. They can sometimes be hard to spot, because those suffering frequently only let people see what they want them to see. We learn to hide our suffering but if you are paying attention to the bigger picture, you may see them.

It may be something that a little time off or a transfer to a new unit may help, or it may be something far more serious.

We put on a brave face, maybe a chemically induced brave face; we fight the urge to stay in bed all day or to isolate ourselves just so we can maintain an appearance of being “normal.” This can be exhausting as we “suck it up” and try to function. We are afraid of being judged; of being thought of a weak and that we just “can’t hack it.” Maybe we’re also afraid that admitting we are suffering will limit or derail our career.

In the past, whenever I heard of yet another police officer being arrested for impaired driving, I used to wonder how they could be so stupid, especially given the carnage that police officers see as a result of impaired driving. As a recovering alcoholic, I now wonder if that officer has any mental health issues.

When you have an officer who goes from being a high performer to just doing the bare minimum, it might not be because they are lazy or a jaded veteran.

An officer who becomes withdrawn, gets angry very easily or becomes a “problem officer” may be losing the battle to “suck it up” and keep going; a battle fought out of the fear of being thought of as weak; that admitting we are suffering will limit or derail our career. That’s essentially what happened to me.

I eventually did get help and am grateful to be alive, but it wasn’t from those who should have been there for me. When I finally spoke up and said I needed to go on a medical leave, I suddenly found myself on my own with no help getting disability benefits and into treatment programs from my service or even from my association; the ones who are supposed to, “protect the protectors.”

In the end, I was forced out. Suddenly all the good I’d done over the past two decades of my career meant absolutely nothing. Only three of my colleagues ever reached out to me, something that I’m grateful for, but the rest seem to have forgotten about me.

I once asked two senior officers what I thought was a very simple question: “We tell people that if they’re in trouble, call 911. What number do police officers call when they need help?” I was met with silence.

In a para-military profession such as policing, too often senior officers place more of a priority on disciplinary measures for “problem officers.” While good order and discipline must be maintained and mental health issues must never become a “get out of jail free card,” too often there is more of a priority on Police Act charges.

What I suggest senior officers should be doing is finding out what, if any, underlying causes may be present for the “offending” officer. That officer may already be feeling like a failure and subjecting them to a disciplinary process may make things much worse.

Police, military and emergency services officers need to look out for each other pay attention to the signs that someone is struggling.  The next time, it might be you.

It was very disheartening to hear fellow officers call me “tick-tock,” as in a bomb ready to explode, or to ridicule and belittle me to the point of destroying most of my self-esteem. The toxic work environment didn’t help either and those responsible for making it that way didn’t seem to care what it was doing to me. How many kicks to the head is someone supposed to take?

My policing career is over now and I’ve accepted it. I wish it didn’t have to end the way it did, but I knew I just couldn’t keep fighting anymore; fighting for my mental wellness in a toxic work environment; fighting against those who seemed determined to make sure I went down in flames – figuratively and literally.

It’s also disheartening and frustrating to think that things could have gotten MUCH worse for me, professionally and legally, if I hadn’t taken myself out of the picture and went on sick leave, and yet things still ended the way they did. “No good deed goes unpunished,” as the saying goes.

As a final kick in the head, I also had to fight a system that is supposed to help you but doesn’t make it easy. For legal reasons, I can’t say too much about that other than we did come to a resolution that allowed me to move on.

Read my other articles on my mental health and alcoholism struggles below:

*************************************************************************

An edited version that appeared in the Toronto Sun 26 November 2019:

This month, 2 more police officers have taken their own lives, the most recent being OPP Staff-Sergeant Jeff Harmer.

At the beginning of November, the Military Police Unit at Base Borden also lost one of their own to suicide. Petty Officer 2nd Class Andrew Cullum died on 1 November 2019, leaving behind a wife and 3 young children. He was 31 years old.

There is a mental health crisis in policing and it’s not getting any better.

I don’t profess to have the answer to preventing any future officer suicide, but as a retired police officer who almost ate my gun, I can offer my perspective.​

In most cases, there are signs that something may be wrong for that person; sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. It may be something that a little time off or a transfer to a new unit may help, or it may be something far more serious. Those suffering frequently only let people see what they want them to see, as we learn to hide our suffering, but if you are paying attention to the bigger picture, you may see them.​

In the past, whenever I heard of yet another police officer being arrested for impaired driving, I used to wonder how they could be so stupid. As a recovering alcoholic, I now wonder if that officer has any mental health issues. No one really enjoys turning their life into a train-wreck.

An officer who becomes withdrawn, gets angry very easily or becomes a “problem officer” may be losing the battle to “suck it up” and keep going; a battle fought out of the fear of being thought of as weak; that admitting we are suffering will limit or derail our career. That’s essentially what happened to me.

Suddenly all the good I’d done over the past two decades of my career meant absolutely nothing. I eventually did get help and am grateful to be alive, but it wasn’t from those who should have been there for me.

I once asked two senior officers what I thought was a very simple question: “We tell people that if they’re in trouble, call 911. What number do police officers call when they need help?” I was met with silence.

In a para-military profession such as policing, too often senior officers place more of a priority on disciplinary measures for “problem officers.” While good order and discipline must be maintained and mental health issues must never become a “get out of jail free card,” too often there is more of a priority on Police Act charges.

I would suggest that senior officers should be doing more to determine what, if any, underlying causes may be present for the “offending” officer. That officer may already be feeling like a failure and subjecting them to a disciplinary process may make things much worse.

Police, military and emergency services officers need to look out for each other and pay attention to the signs that someone is struggling.  The next time, it might be you.

Sources: https://globalnews.ca/news/6191107/ontario-provincial-police-officer-suicide/?fbclid=IwAR1ETCRu5gxnuyG0cPvfRXZOm3GtzkHHve9ZJosJilQKmH0fORP-tGA9xqI, https://torontosun.com/news/local-news/warmington-opp-members-devastated-by-latest-officer-suicide, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/opp-suicide-roch-durivage-ontario-police-1.5068591, https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/fourth-ontario-police-officer-dies-by-suicide-in-nine-months-1.4347424, https://kitchener.ctvnews.ca/three-opp-officers-die-by-suicide-in-past-month-1.4074218, https://www.orilliamatters.com/local-news/police-suicide-study-released-were-going-in-circles-1757211, https://www.ombudsman.on.ca/Files/sitemedia/Documents/Investigations/SORT%20Investigations/OPP-final-EN.pdf

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/the-next-time-it-might-be-you/

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