On the heels of recent police officer suicides, Ontario Provincial Police will launch a sweeping internal review of their mental health strategy with the hopes of breaking down barriers that may prevent its members from seeking help.

The provincial police service has been grappling with tragedy this month, after three of its members claimed their own lives in a three-week span. The deaths have impacted officers across the organization and sparked calls to modernize the service’s existing mental health strategy, which was in part developed in response to a 2012 ombudsman report that concluded the force was not doing enough to support officers with “operational stress injuries.”

OPP Commissioner Vincent Hawkes said the deaths have stirred feedback from members, past and present, who have expressed a desperate need for change.

“We do know from the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health that stigma prevents 30 per cent of people with anxiety and depression from seeking medical help,” Hawkes said at a news conference in Orillia, Ont. on Thursday.

“I’ve heard it loud and clear from family members in the last three weeks – there’s fear. Fear that the members do not want to disclose mental illness. There’s fear that the gun will be taken away. There’s fear of what coworkers and fellow officers will think of them. There’s fear that this will end their career.”

That fear, combined with the force’s current mental health support system, which Hawkes described as “process overload,” is part of what the force wants to overhaul.

Hawkes said the collaborative review will be conducted in three parts – enhancing, examining and evaluating the organization. It will also look at member suicides and attempted suicides over the past five years to identify any links or commonalities.

According to OPP records, a total of 24 active OPP members and 9 retired members have died by suicide in the past 30 years.

The existing process for an officer to get help is currently structured like a triage system, Hawkes said. Although it has a “good foundation,” he acknowledged that it has “serious gaps and barriers that require further examination, review and evaluation.”

“What we need to do is make it simple. What I’ve been hearing is that things are very complicated,” he said.

“If they’re in trouble, they don’t want to get onto a phone line and have to be put off to somebody else and so on… We’ve been listening to our members who have this high sense of frustration (with the system) and that adds to their stress. We need to get them to the right individual with the right skill set as fast as we can. That’s what the goal is.”

As part of the review, the organization will also organize several roundtable discussions run by an “assessment team” made up of officers with lived experience, family members who have been impacted and experts and stakeholders in the mental health field. The province’s chief coroner is also assisting with the review.

The goal of the discussions, Hawkes said, will be to build recommendations on changes the organization could make to better the availability, accessibility and response to mental health issues.

Hawkes said he feels the OPP could be in the right position to make sweeping changes in less than a year. He said he felt “very encouraged” by the first of many meetings on the topic, held yesterday, with representatives from the provincial government. While no official commitment has been made, Hawkes said that he has received support from the premier.

“I’m a very impatient man. When we put a plan in place, I want to see it done as fast as possible. We want to be cautious and make sure we do it right,” he said.

“We’ve been working on our mental health strategy for a number of years now. We don’t need to throw a couple sticks of dynamite in and start from scratch. We have a very, very good process… I’m confident that piece is solid. What we have to do is add components to that.”

Despite the ongoing grief the organization is enduring, Hawkes said he’s been “truly overwhelmed” by personal outreach from members who have offered to be a part of the process.

Last week, the widow of OPP Sgt. Sylvain Joseph Francois Routhier, who was one of the three officers to die by suicide in the past weeks, spoke to CTV News Toronto. She said she wanted to share her husband’s struggle with mental illness publicly to show others that they’re not alone.

“When he was struggling, he was very quiet about it, he didn’t want to talk about it,” Sarah Routhier said of her husband’s challenges.

“He didn’t want to tell people why he was off work. He was very worried about what people were going to think of him because he was a trained police officer to be strong, going to work every day, dealing with difficult calls and having to do it day after day after day.”

The husband and father of three died on July 31.

Det.-Insp. Paul Horne passed away on August 11 and Const. Joshua Dubock, who was named for the first time at Thursday’s news conference, died last week.

Hawkes said that while the policing field has “come a long way,” there’s still a culture that exists among some officers that ties mental illness to perceived weakness.

“That attitude we had 30 years ago, where everything was about, ‘you’re going to have to get over it to be a good cop.’ Unfortunately there’s still some of that left,” he said.

“We need officers to be comfortable talking to their supervisor, talking to their best friend, talking to their spouse or their loved one and to release some of that.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, depression or suicidal thoughts, there are ways to connect.

The OPP’s internal resources are 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.