'It shook me': Former OPP officer told to take yoga after coworker took his own life
A former Ontario Provincial Police officer said that she was told by staff at the force’s Employee Assistance Program to take yoga to help relieve her mental health issues.
Bridget, who only wanted to be identified by her first name, told CTV News Toronto that she was hired as an OPP officer in August 1995. She worked primarily as a front-line officer in northern and eastern Ontario.
In May 2017, she learned that one of her coworkers had taken his own life.
“It shook me. It scared me and I thought I need to address this before I’m next,” she said. “At the time I made a phone call to our (Employee Assistance Program). I was looking specifically for a referral to some kind of counselling, psychiatric or psychological or even group counselling that was dealing with police issues or first responder issues.”
Bridget said that she spent an hour with a social worker and at the end of the session it was suggested that she take up yoga.
“I was in some pretty dire straits there and yoga was not really the help I was looking for.”
Bridget took some time off work and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Nine months later, after a consultation with her doctors, she decided it was time to explore other employment opportunities.
Bridget decided to speak publicly about her mental health after learning last week that three OPP officers took their own lives over a three-week period.
On Aug. 22, the president of the Ontario Provincial Police Association sent out a letter urging members to seek help to deal with the trauma they experience on the job.
“I have experienced extreme trauma as a result of doing my job as a police officer and four years ago I needed to step away. This has been a personal journey, and it is difficult to share this with thousands of people I do not know; however, I do so in the hope that it may give some strength to hang on, to speak to someone and to know you are not alone,” Rob Jamieson wrote in the letter.
Two of the officers who took their lives have been identified. OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes identified one of the officer as Detective Insp. Paul Horne. He died on Aug. 11.
The second officer was Sgt. Sylvain Joseph Francois Routhier of Belleville. His obituary said that he passed away on July 31 and that he he took his own life “after a brief battle with mental illness.” His widow, Sarah Routhier, said that her husband had served with the OPP for 13 years and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in April.
“Initially I thought he was having a stroke. He had a very hard time focusing and concentrating at work that day. He started telling me that he hadn’t been sleeping in about a week,” she said. “We often said he was in a fog.”
Routhier said that she came home one day to find her husband missing. A suicide note was left behind.
Routhier told CTV News Toronto on Wednesday that since speaking publically about her husband’s death, she has received numerous messages and phone calls from people saying they are now going to seek help to deal with their mental health.
“That’s all we can hope for,” she said. “That people know it is okay to get help if they need help with their struggles.”
Routhier said that her husband did receive support from the Employee Assistance Program, but also said that it was the stigma associated with mental illness that provided a real barrier.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt to offer more support and more resources to members of the Ontario Provincial Police and their families. The more support the better, but there is a huge stigma here so it has to start with people reaching out for help and knowing it is okay to reach out for help if they are struggling.”
For Bridget, that stigma associated with mental illness meant that she didn’t know her colleague was struggling until it was too late.
“It wasn’t talked about. You don’t ask questions. They try to cover it under privacy issues, where they don’t want to reveal what people are going through, so you are left to wonder. Does someone have a serious medical illness? Is there family trouble? You don’t know. And then you get the news.”
“Obviously this is a real issue,” Jamieson told CTV News Toronto on Wednesday. “To what extent, I don’t know. But I know this. These folks, those who wish to come forward, need that support.”
“There are folks that have died by suicide prior to these officers. One is too many. We need to have continuing conversations around mental health.”
In a statement released last week, Hawkes said the service is “devastated” by the loss of three of its members.
“As Commissioner of the OPP, I am committed to examining the barriers that exist preventing our members from seeking assistance and support. I appeal to our members, their family and friends that if you recognize a fellow member or should a member of your family require assistance, please contact one of our many support services.”
The OPP held a conference call with the province Wednesday to discuss the high suicide rate inside the force. The commissioner will be making a public address at 10 a.m. on Thursday alongside psychologist Julie Devlin to discuss suicide awareness.
The OPP says it has internal resources available through the OPP intranet and on the OPPA website. There is also an external helpline available through the Employee and Family Assistance Program at 1-800-387-4765 or at workhealthlife.com.
Anyone suffering from mental illness or suicidal thoughts should reach out to one of Ontario’s distress centres or call 911. The phone number for the Toronto Distress Centre is 416-408-4357.
-With files from CTV News Toronto's Tracy Tong