Former Caledon officer encourages first responders to step out of the shadows and talk about mental

Former Caledon officer encourages first responders to step out of the shadows and talk about mental health (Caledon Enterprise)

February 8, 2016

8 February, 2016

Ten first responders and two members of the military took their lives in the first six weeks of the year.

Robyn Wilkinson
Caledon Enterprise
February 08, 2016

Ten first responders and two members of the military took their lives in the first six weeks of the year.

The shocking statistics are overwhelming for Brian Knowler, a former Caledon Ontario Provincial Police staff sgt.

“It just sort of hit me all at once, people who wore a uniform because they wanted to do a job where they could make a difference in and felt that was their only way out,” Knowler told The Enterprise Monday morning (Feb. 8).

The now Chatham-Kent staff sgt. penned his thoughts on the recent tragedies in a LinkedIn article published Friday.

“Whatever was going on in their head, so much to grapple with in the dark, they saw that taking their own lives was the only way out,” said Knowler. “I’ve been in that place. That dark, horrible place.”

The veteran officer has dealt with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) stemming from a 2004 accident that claimed the life of a close friend he had attended university with.

He suffered in silence for years, plagued by the memories of the day he arrived at the scene and held his dying friend in his arms.

He didn’t seek help until 2012, eight years later. And he refuses to be silent about it any longer.

The Ontario Ombudsman’s report ‘In the Line of Duty’ which suggested the OPP confront the mental health stigma in police culture, struck a personal cord with the veteran officer, who also maintains a law degree.

He decided to step out of the shadows and share his story in an email with approximately 200 colleagues at Caledon OPP.

“I remember hovering my finger over the mouse thinking, once you hit send you can’t take it back, do you really want to do it?”

He pushed send.

“If I can save another officer or their family from the heart ache that my family went through then it’s well worth it,” he said.

The recent deaths have shone a spotlight on the mental health of first responders and the need for better support and access to Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) coverage. The Ontario government has alluded that PTSD legislation is possibly on the horizon.

Knowler says he didn’t experience some of the horrors others have struggled with trying to get coverage through WSIB, and he’s hopeful Bill 2 for presumptive legislation for first responders is approved. Currently, first responders have to prove their PTSD was suffered on the job. Under Bill 2, the WSIB would presume the first responders’ PTSD was caused on the job.

“Especially since it’s already in place in other provinces (Alberta and Manitoba have adopted it) and works,” said Knowler of seeing Bill 2 approved. “It’s not a pie in the sky concept. I think Ontarians with the largest amount of first responders in the country should be able to go the same route.”


SUFFERING IN SILENCE

According to the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, 39 first responders and 12 military members died by suicide in 2015, while the number has shot to 10 first responders and two military personnel in the first five weeks of 2016.

Peel paramedic Martin Wood was one of them. He was found dead in his car in Caledon on Jan. 31.

Toronto police officer Darius Garda was pulled out of the waters of Lake Ontario by his colleagues last week. The same week, an OPP officer succumbed to his demons. In early January, an OPP detective shot and killed himself.

These are just a few of the tragedies Knowler has learned about as often times suicides go unreported.

“There’s a lot we don’t hear about. The ones who overdose, those who committed suicide in their own home. It doesn’t get publicized,” he said.

Traditionally, the media does not report suicides.

“When you have an officer in Toronto doing that in a very public, high profile way, clearly sending a message, do you have an obligation to cover that? I would argue yes.”


SPEAKING OUT

“I guess I have a different view point than a lot of officers do. In some quarters it’s believed it (mental health) gets talked about behind closed doors, it’s not for public consumption, it’s not for media consumption.

I would argue that these kinds of numbers –12 people in uniform in five weeks have taken their own lives – if that’s not sending a message, if that’s not something that needs to be looked at as a very scary trend…”

The officer believes the conversations surrounding mental health is starting to change.

“In all the emergency response fields and in the military there is growing recognition that the old idea of suck it up is going away,” Knowler believes.

The Ontario Provincial Police has programs in place following the ombudsman report, however, the culture and stigma surrounding mental health still needs work, according to Knowler.

“All the great programs and all the great initiatives in the world won’t make a difference if the culture they’re meant to get to doesn’t recognize that as well. Let’s face it, there are still people who don’t want to talk about it.”

Going back to his time spent in Caledon, Knowler has no regrets about exposing his personal demons to his colleagues.

“If I want the people I work with to treat this as serious as something that can happen to any of us, what better way then to make yourself a little vulnerable and tell your story.”

It’s been three years since he pressed send, and from time to time, he’ll go back to his inbox where that old email sits as a reminder of what happened when he stepped out of the shadows. 

“The only way it’s going to change is if we come out from behind our uniforms and put on our human faces and talk about it.”