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Ontario chief coroner Dirk Huyer speaks to the media in Toronto, April 27, 2018. Huyer launched a review of police suicides that took place in the province last year.

Galit Rodan/The Canadian Press

An expert panel on police officer suicide deaths is calling on Ontario’s coroner’s office to track the suicide deaths of first responders, in a report that sheds light on a highly stigmatized topic within policing.

The panel, convened earlier this year by Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer, reviewed the suicide deaths of nine police officers in the province in 2018. That number is believed to be unprecedented, though the panel notes this can’t be known for sure because there has never been a requirement for coroners or others to track these deaths among first responders or police.

“In our view the unique nature within, and the place of policing in society, requires that we closely track and learn from every situation that results in a death by suicide, with a view to continuous improvement across the entire police and mental health ecosystem,” the report stated.

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While there are an increasing amount of mental-health supports available, the report found stigma prevents many officers from accessing those resources, for fear of being seen as “broken toys,” or unfit for duty.

A large number of the 911 calls police respond to involve people with mental-health issues, the report found, and as a result, “most police members will soon come to regard any person with mental health issues as someone they would never want to be.”

The panel found front-line officers reported feeling “disillusioned about the effectiveness of mental health care when they bring acutely mentally unwell people to hospital only to see them leave shortly afterwards with little to no change in their condition or circumstances.”

Linda Duxbury, a professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University who has worked with numerous police services across Canada through her research, was pleased with the report’s findings. But she would have liked to see the panel’s scope expanded to include staffing and resourcing.

It’s an issue the report does mention in passing, noting police resources in Ontario are “strained to a breaking point in many locations around the province.”

Prof. Duxbury believes addressing the workload of police officers is as crucial as culture.

“Police right now are the only service that can’t say ‘no’… it’s not sustainable,” she said. “Culture change is needed, yes, but equally needed is providing efficient resources – or taking something off their plate.”

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Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, agreed. He said understaffing puts additional stress on already overworked officers, which can in turn lead to resentment toward people who are on leave for mental-health reasons.

“You [start to hear] ‘I’ve gotta be here doing more work because of that guy.’ It defeats the whole purpose of dealing with those issues,” Mr. McCormack said.

In addition to a recommendation to begin tracking first-responder suicides, the report also recommends the Solicitor-General establish an Ontario Police Members Mental Health Collaborative to “guide, monitor and report on an urgent and comprehensive plan of action in Ontario.”

Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones said she would review the 14 recommendations laid out by the panel.

“We are determined to do all we can to ensure they remain healthy and ready to serve,” she said.

Last week, there were two reported suicide deaths of police officers in Ontario. Last Friday evening, a constable with the Ottawa Police Service died in the robbery unit of the service’s headquarters. One day earlier, a Toronto Police constable died at his home.

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“This is tragic news for us as his colleagues, and I encourage everyone to seek support from one another and from your families,” Chief Mark Saunders wrote in an internal memo to his officers.

For Bill Rusk, the executive director of Badge of Life Canada, a non-profit organization that connects police officers with mental-health resources, the news of those deaths came as a “gut punch.” He stressed there is a lot of work to be done, but believes the publication of this report is an indication change is on the horizon.

“The biggest thing is that the conversations have started.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or Crisis Service Canada at 1-833-456-4566, or visit http://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/, call 911 or go to your nearest hospital.

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