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What if I had chosen suicide?

June 2019

I’ve attended many police funerals in my two and half decades in Law Enforcement, including the funeral of an auxiliary constable from the last police service I worked for, who died in an off-duty traffic collision (he left behind a wife and three young children).  I’ve also attended annual memorial services held to honour all police and peace officers killed in the line of duty in Ottawa, Toronto, New York City (in the 9-11 terrorist attacks), Albany, New York, and Cleveland, Ohio. 

I always attended, at my own expense, out of a sense of duty and obligation to honour the memory of the officers gone before me; officers who under similar circumstances could have been me.  All police and peace officers know that any time they leave their homes to go to work, they may never return.  It’s not something that you obsess over, otherwise you couldn’t do your job, but it’s a reality and one that shouldn’t be ignored.  I always took comfort in the thought that if I did ever die in the line of duty, each year at the end of September there would be hundreds of officer lined up on Parliament Hill to remember me.

I even attended the funeral for the four RCMP Officers killed in Mayerthorpe, Alberta, back in 2005, also at my own expense.  That was a very long day.

Even though I’m retired now, I still attend the annual memorials, along with any funerals in my area when I can.

However, an unspoken threat that has always faced police and peace officers for many, many years is slowly being recognized today for the real threat that it is:  sometimes the action that leads to the death of a police or peace officer may come from their own hand.  The Ontario Provincial Police alone have recorded 25 suicides of active-duty officers and 9 retired members in the past 30 years; the most recent being OPP Constable Karen Anne Peoples on 1 June. 

An internal report on the recent rash of officer suicides, ordered last year by outgoing OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes, and authored by two chief superintendents, is expected to be handed in soon. Although I wasn’t an OPP officer, I was invited to take part in the roundtable discussions that will form the basis of this report. I certainly had a few things to say.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say we have a crisis here.

How many officers from other police and law enforcement services in Canada and the United States have also killed themselves in the same time period?  How about in the last 100 years? 

How many suicides were not reported?  How many “accidental” deaths, such as an “accidental” overdose of prescription medication, were intentional suicides?  How many “accidental” motor vehicle collisions were actually a method of suicide?  How many times have we heard it said that someone “accidentally” shot themselves while cleaning their gun?

If it wasn’t for the fact that I have a young daughter, I might have “accidentally” shot myself while cleaning my gun or taken too many of the sleeping pills that I’ve been taking for over a decade and counting.  The thought of leaving the daughter that I love with all my heart without the Daddy whom she loves with all hers, was greater than the pain I felt and still feel to this day.  Yes, although I’m a lot better now than I used to be, I still have suicidal thoughts now and again.  My daughter is a big reason why I don’t follow through on those dark thoughts. She gives me the strength to fight on and I’m much better today.

Another is my love of travelling; with a long list of places I still want to visit. I have written about some of the interesting and unique places I have already visited on this web site, with many more to come.

On one night shift at work, I would have crashed my police car head-on into a car fleeing from fellow officers pursuing him towards my position if it wasn’t for the sudden realization that my partner was sitting in the passenger seat.  He certainly didn’t deserve to die that night.

For almost three decades, I rarely talked about my suicidal thoughts or intentions.  I even made some plans; one being that I was going to come to work, get dressed in my patrol uniform, stand in the foyer by the front desk and shoot myself in front of my colleagues.

If I had killed myself on any of the occasions that I considered doing it, would my fellow officers have lined up on the street in their dress uniforms, some sporting medals earned as police officers or serving in the military, as a part of the funeral procession?  Would I have had a police funeral?  What would have my fellow officers or friends have said at my funeral?  Would any of them have bothered to show up? 

Would any of my co-workers have expressed regret; wishing they had recognized the signs of someone at risk of suicide? Would any of them say I was a great guy; a dedicated officer and they will miss me?  I did go from being a very dedicated and hard-working officer, to one who just did the bare minimum, not because I was lazy, but because I figured the less I did, the less chance I had of doing something that would attract negative attention from my supervisors or generate yet another frivolous and vexatious complaint from a member of the public.  

By the way, public complaints are quite common, even if you did nothing wrong.  Some people don’t like being told the “customer” isn’t always right. 

Did any of them see the signs of someone who was a high risk for suicide?  Although I did the best I could to hide those signs, there were signs that things were wrong with me, but many chose to ignore them. 

Would there be a plaque up on the wall dedicated to my memory, maybe right beside the auxiliary constable who died in the collision?  Would there be a park named in my honour?  Maybe annual school award?

I do know that I wouldn’t have my name included on the honour roll for either the Ontario Police Officer Memorial in Toronto or the Canadian Police and Peace Officer Memorial in Ottawa, as officers who lose their lives as a result of their own hand are barred from inclusion, even if the reasons for their suicide are directly linked to the job.

What drove me to become suicidal, be a high-functioning alcoholic, have sleeping problems (necessitating the sleeping pills and then alcohol to give them a “kick”), become clinically depressed and ultimately develop PTSD?  Was it all the dead and mangled bodies that I saw?  No, that never really bothered me, even the really gruesome ones.  Sure, I was sad, but I always chalked that up to the fact that I didn’t know them.  Although my eyes did well up a bit when dealing with the dead children I saw, it wasn’t the cause of my PTSD.

The only one that bothered me, in a small way, was the fellow who had told his neighbours that he was going to drink himself to death and by God, he did it (you got to admire that he set a goal and achieved it – sorry, typical cop dark humour).  I remember while guarding his body as I waited for the coroner to come and officially pronounce death, looking at him lying on his couch, eyes open in an empty gaze, and thinking this is where I was headed if I didn’t get sober myself.

No, what caused my mental health to plummet was actually the bullying from my fellow officers, something that began fairly early on in my career and carried on until I retired after a medical leave, along with two emotionally abusive relationships I had in my personal life; one a romantic relationship and one a “friend” of almost 30 years, both of whom were fellow police officers.

It probably didn’t help either that my marriage fell apart when my first and only child, a daughter, was 2 years old, forcing me to become a single father of a toddler.  She is now a happy 11-year-old who adores her Daddy (probably because I spoil her a little too much), but it was an emotional struggle learning how to take care of a child while trying to keep myself together mentally and physically.

The work bullying that I dealt with came in various forms and I tried to soldier on as best as I could, along with downing increasing amounts of alcohol and prescription medication.  I even went to another police service, but then it just became the same crap from different people, some of whom were supervisors (one VERY high up). 

What would any of them think of me talking about my suicidal thoughts now? Would they think I was simply trying to get sympathy? Would they try to minimize the feelings in my confessions by saying that I was a marginal officer and just couldn’t cut it?

I used to joke that I feared more from the “boys in blue” than I did from the “shit-rats” we dealt with on a daily basis, because at least the “shit-rats” would come at you from the front.  That’s not something that you see on the recruiting poster. Workplace bullying is a dangerous reality for some.

Isn’t it ironic that adults tell kids not to bully each other, yet adults sometimes bully each other. At least when I was a kid, I could punch the bully in the nose. Win, lose or draw, I never had the same bully come at me again once they realized I’d fight back. As an adult, it’s “frowned upon” to punch someone.

That’s one reason why anti-bullying campaigns don’t really work?

I’ve confronted some of these people in recent years and let them know what affect their actions had on me, something that has been very cathartic.  For years I never talked about my suicidal thoughts or my mental health but as the climate and understanding about mental health is improving, I’ve begun to open up and talk about my experiences, including my suicidal thoughts.

Now that more and more first responders and military veterans are opening up, hopefully the mental illness stigma that drives many to commit suicide will eventually vanish.  We still have a long way to go unfortunately.

Also see my other articles on this subject: https://militarybruce.com/the-positive-side-of-ptsd, https://militarybruce.com/what-do-depression-and-anxiety-look-like-not-what-you-think, https://militarybruce.com/a-crisis-in-policing, https://militarybruce.com/overdue-honour-staff-sergeant-eddie-adamson-to-be-honoured-on-the-toronto-police-honour-roll.

Sources: https://torontosun.com/opinion/columnists/bonokoski-another-suicide-as-opp-awaits-internal-review, https://www.guelphtoday.com/obituaries/peoples-karen-anne-nee-najbert-1490085

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/what-if-i-had-chosen-suicide/

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