Quiet conversations about mental illness

I have written this column too many times.

Det. Larry Penfold.

Const. Roy Jones.

Staff Sgt. Ian Matthews.

And now another Hamilton police officer has died by suicide. On Sunday, he left behind many people who loved him, including children. He died at home. His family has asked for donations to a fund supporting research into mental illness and PTSD.

There are other recent additions to this sad list, too. A civilian member. A retiree.

I have named only those whose families I have spoken with. But I think it is important to publicly acknowledge this new loss. Important to support our police community as it mourns. And important to recognize that although it is virtually impossible to untangle a life lost to suicide and point to one single cause, there is a unique dynamic in the world of policing.

Police are warriors who live and work in a culture that rewards strength and control. Many officers fear career repercussions if they reach out for help.

Police experience stresses and horrors most of us are never exposed to. And police have guns.

It is also important to take direction from police themselves and their loved ones. I hear from them that this is an issue they want to talk about and learn from, because that is the only way to break down stigma and affect change.

Since Sunday, I have heard from widows raising children on their own. From officers who have put the barrel of their gun in their mouth. From officers who have privately sought psychiatric help because they don’t want their colleagues to know they are struggling. From cops who are heartbroken because another friend has died.

This issue is not unique to Hamilton. Police services across Canada are facing the complex problem of mental health within their organizations. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has made it a priority issue. But here, in our city, right now, the issue strikes very close to home.

“Once again Hamilton police have lost a family member to suicide,” says Sharon Jones, whose husband Roy shot himself while on duty in 2006.

The constable who died this week was Roy’s classmate at Ontario Police College and a dear friend.

“They spent many hours together driving back and forth to (OPC in) Aylmer,” says Sharon. “I remember the day Roy passed away and he came hours later, after being held by the police for questioning, and the only thing he wanted was to come and tell me personally about Roy’s death.”

Roy left behind a daughter and son.

A few months before Roy died, Larry Penfold shot himself in a Hamilton cemetery while on duty. He died next to the grave of his friend, another Hamilton police officer, whose death was accidental.

Larry left behind two sons.

His widow, Michele Penfold, says she was deeply saddened when she learned another officer took his own life this week.

Larry loved being a cop and “never seemed to have any problems handling it,” says Michele. But in the weeks leading up to his death, he was not himself. He saw a doctor and was prescribed anti-depressants. When the doctor asked if he was suicidal, Larry said no.

“I’m hoping that maybe something I say will help other families,” says Michele. “This issue is not going to go away. All first responders need mental wellness testing.”

Perhaps the highest profile suicide of a Hamilton officer was that of Ian Matthews just before Christmas in 2013. The former homicide investigator shot himself on duty at police headquarters.

(Ian was not the first officer to die by suicide at that police station. Years ago, another Hamilton officer took his life in the basement.)

Ian left behind a daughter and a son.

Ian’s brother, Sam Matthews, says when he heard of the latest suicide, he was angry and devastated. “This officer can’t just be another statistic,” he says.

One year ago, a Mental Wellness Committee was struck at the Hamilton Police Service, with 19 members coming from across the organization. In January, recommendations from that committee were handed to Chief Glenn De Caire. He has not yet shared those recommendations publicly. Asked about it again Wednesday, police spokesperson Catherine Martin sent an email reply: “The chief welcomes the opportunity to speak with you, next month, about the nature of the recommendations.”

The chief has repeatedly talked about the need for his 1,000 members to engage in “a courageous conversation.”

But he also feels the suicide of an officer is not necessarily news.

“Just because it is a police officer that dies by suicide doesn’t make it a public interest story,” he recently told Ryerson University journalism students doing a case study of The Spectator’s coverage of a police officer’s suicide.

“There are a lot of important occupations out there and we don’t report on their incidents of suicide. So I’m not convinced that the police holds any special standing, particularly on this issue, that requires any greater level of disclosure to the public.”

This week, as I hear from police officers and their families grieving the loss of another brother, I am heartened by the fact that a conversation is happening.

Quietly perhaps, but it is there.

Source: The Hamilton Spectator