High incidence of suicide among Canada’s first responders

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In honour of Mental Illness Awareness Week, which took place last week, I thought it fitting to discuss an unfortunate trend which has recently garnered a lot of attention across our nation: suicide among first responders. It is a sensitive issue that goes beyond the media headlines that I believe deserves more attention. Ottawa police are themselves reeling from the suicide of Staff Sgt. Kal Ghadban, a 22-year veteran of the police force who took his own life last month at the Elgin Street headquarters (The Canadian Press, 2014). Only a few days later, Cpl. Ron Francis, a 43-year-old New-Brunswick Mountie, shot himself in his home following a public struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Taber, 2014). At the funeral, mourners wore blue ribbons on their lapels to bring awareness to PTSD.

Sadly, these were not isolated events, but the latest in a string of deaths over the last few months. Although there is no database tracking suicide rates within the country’s numerous police forces, the Tema Conter Memorial Trust -an organization that works to raise awareness of the mental health concerns faced by first responders – began logging police suicides in late April. So far, it has recorded 13 instances where actively serving officers took their own lives (The Canadian Press, 2014). First responder suicides – police officers, firefighters, paramedics, soldiers and corrections officers – has reached the surprising total of twenty-four according to the foundation. Tema Founder and Executive Director Vince Savoia said the numbers parallel increasing rates of suicide among soldiers. The military recorded 10 confirmed suicides between November 2013 and February 2014, which had the Department of National Defence facing some heavy criticism (The Canadian Press, 2013).

Combined, repeated exposure to traumatic events and the pressures generated by an internal subculture that discourages signs of perceived weakness, further perpetuate the stigma attached to mental health. When public perception of first responders is one of heroism and resilience, and fear is equated with weakness, frontline staff will often chose to suffer alone and in silence rather than risk being ridiculed for seeking help.

Experts agree that mental health resources currently available to first responders are scarce. As part of a mental health strategy released earlier this year, the RCMP stated that 38 percent of its long-term sick leaves among regular and civilian members were the result of mental illness, while 16 serving members and 15 retired employees took their own lives between 2006 and 2014 (The Canadian Press, 2014). The newly developed program employs mental health professionals on staff in an effort to tackle the burden of mental illness caused by the job.

While the employee assistance initiative is a step in the right direction, officers are apprehensive about the risks associated with patient confidentiality. They fear that they will be penalized for coming forward, negatively impacting their career prospects and leaving them feeling ostracized by their peers. Moving forward, the key to the RCMP’s new mental health strategy along with other similar programs available to first responders, will be to have members overcome the overwhelming feeling of shame that can end in tragedy.

The deaths of these loved ones should not be in vain. They should serve to illustrate the need for increased public awareness of mental illness. It is clear that our government needs to allot more funds to make local mental health programs for early intervention, screening, and treatment more accessible and affordable to first responders. But most of all, the stigma associated with mental illness must be removed from within the organization. The most important driver of change will be once seeking help is seen as a sign of courage and not weakness.

References

DodgertonSkillhause. (2013). [Untitled online image] Retrieved from http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/877784

Taber, Jane. (2014, October 10). Veteran RCMP officer’s suicide stirs PTSD treatment debate. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/veteran-rcmp-officers-suicide-stirs-ptsd-treatment-debate/article21071417/

The Canadian Press. (2013, November 28). Trio of soldier suicides leaves military, minister reeling. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/trio-of-soldier-suicides-leaves-military-minister-reeling-1.2443785

The Canadian Press. (2014, October 5). Troubled cops need more government help, mental health experts say. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/troubled-cops-need-more-government-help-mental-health-experts-say-1.2788319

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Julie Boucher

Julie obtained her MSc in Interdisciplinary Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa. She is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the IJHS.

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