Walking the thin blue line: How stigma is silencing police officers

Const. Eli Edwards is speaking out about mental health after his own brush with depression and suicide a decade ago.

Const. Eli Edwards is speaking out about mental health after his own brush with depression and suicide a decade ago.

Jean Levac / Ottawa Citizen

Inside a closed community police centre on Somerset Street, Const. Eli Edwards paced back and forth, uncontrollable tears streaming down his face. Finally, he made a decision.

He pulled out his service-issued firearm and placed it on the desk.

“I just decided that the only way out was to end it,” Edwards says.

Edwards had been out on patrol in his police cruiser when he began to feel the anxiety welling up. It was a Sunday in 2004 and Edwards had been on the job for seven years. The victim of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a family friend his parents had trusted, Edwards joined the Ottawa Police Service to get away from those memories in his hometown of Kingston.

But the job he loved from his very first day in uniform had taken a toll. There was the constant barrage of what’s known as adrenaline dumps on shift work. He was burdened by the guilt of not speaking out about the abuse he had suffered and feared he was allowing others to be victimized. His marriage was falling apart and he was trying to cope in all the wrong ways.

“I just stared at it and stared at it and stared at it,” Edwards says of the gun on that desk that day.

“I just couldn’t do it.”


Edwards, now 40 and an academic instructor for Ottawa police investigative courses, made an appointment to see a counsellor through the employee and family assistance program. But he didn’t keep it, at least not then.

He says he didn’t want to jeopardize his career by having others label him a “head case.”

“I was afraid to come forward,” he says. “I was afraid to be an outcast.”

What prevented Edwards from getting the help he needed a decade ago is still the No. 1 obstacle for officers who are struggling today – a culture steeped in stigma that would rather see them suck-it-up-buttercup than risk workplace ostracism.

This is a generation of officers who see themselves as sheepdogs, caught in the unforgiving position of herding the unwilling and standing guard against their aggressors. For them, admitting weakness means risking advancement in their career, potentially falling off a community pedestal and planting seeds of doubt in the minds of their colleagues about whether they can do the job. Things are changing, but it’s a slow process with much more work ahead, says Ottawa Police Association president Matt Skof.

The country has been racked by 26 suicides by first-responders — a group that includes firefighters, paramedics and police officers — over the past six months. The Tema Conter Memorial Trust, a group that works to promote mental health in first-responders, has confirmed 12 suicides among active Canadian police officers since late April.

Ottawa police are themselves reeling from the suicide of well-known Staff Sgt. Kal Ghadban. The service and the Special Investigations Unit continue to probe the circumstances surrounding Ghadban’s death and while there are no immediate answers there are questions. Perhaps foremost among them: What is keeping our rank-and-file silent about their stresses, whether job-related or not?


Ottawa police Const. Jon Guilbeault has been diagnosed with PTSD. He's speaking out about his experience with mental health issues on the job. (Jean Levac/ Ottawa Citizen) ORG XMIT: 1004 police mental health

Ottawa police Const. Jon Guilbeault had a heart attack at age 33, brought on, doctors believe, by job stress. Drinking and disciplinary problems plagued his career until he sought professional help.

Jean Levac / Ottawa Citizen

Edwards told himself he could control all of it, that he was stronger than the demons he was battling.

But the calls he was dealing with started to stick with him. He’d have nightmares about the things he had witnessed: the death of an infant, an old woman sitting dead in her EZ-chair with bugs crawling out of her face, a little girl who was murdered on Percy Street and deliberately arranged to look like she was in a casket.

Edwards started to drink every day. Relying on alcohol to blow off steam is a coping mechanism as old as policing itself.

“It wasn’t hard to find somebody to have some beers with after work,” agrees Const. Jon Guilbeault, 39, whose own self-medicating let him put off being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Guilbeault has lost relationships. He knows he’s damaged his career and reputation with multiple disciplinary charges and a guilty plea for drunk driving during a time when his life was unmanageable. He had a heart attack at just 33, partly due, it’s believed, to the stress of the job.

When he thought he had a heart condition, he would openly discuss his concerns. Once it was a substance abuse problem masking his PTSD, he didn’t want to lose his career.

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Now, there are colleagues who don’t even look at him.

“Going (to treatment), checking myself in, was the hardest thing in the world,” Guilbeault says. “I’m a cop, I don’t belong here. How did I get here?’’

Having played hockey his whole life, the team mentality always appealed to him — putting on a uniform and lining up together for one fight.

But a team can sometimes be a mob.

“The stigma is killing people,” he says.


Const. Brenda-Jane Kerr of the Ottawa Police Service, October 06, 2014. (Jean Levac/ Ottawa Citizen)

Const. Brenda-Jane Kerr of the Ottawa Police Service. (Jean Levac/ Ottawa Citizen)

Jean Levac / Ottawa Citizen

It’s not just what happens on the job, says Det. Brenda-Jane Kerr, 50, who is clinically depressed. It’s what happens elsewhere in your life, too, that becomes so tied to the profession, which many officers take on as an all-encompassing identity.

“I finally realized my personal life had turned into a storm and I didn’t recognize myself anymore,” Kerr says.

She was bullied as a teenager and then again on the job by a staff sergeant. Failed relationships, a falling-out with her mother and financial problems that began to mount took her to dark places where she, too, had suicidal thoughts.

“We tend to learn a defective mode of coping on the job.”

Officers are required to present themselves at the scenes of the worst of what the world is, bear witness to horrendous behaviour, then stuff it away somewhere, because when a cop leaves one crime scene, the next call might require them to smile and help someone in need.

It’s emotional labour, and gruelling work at that.

“Learning to compartmentalize as police officers might be some of our problems as people,” Kerr says.

She recalls responding to a suicide by hanging inside a church. Kerr wasn’t prepared for the sight of it, but then as she turned a corner she heard the most beautiful organ music. The choir in another room had no idea what had been happening alongside their rehearsal.

“We’re the fixers. We come in and no matter what’s going on, we’re expected to be on an even keel, we’re supposed to have all the answers,” she says.

“As an officer, you don’t feel that you can say out loud, ‘Hey, I don’t feel great,’” Kerr says.

It’s a decision made out of fear – fear that they’ll take your gun away and send you to the front desk, widely perceived in the service as an administrative wasteland for those who need accommodation whether for physical, mental or disciplinary reasons.


Four years after that Sunday afternoon in 2004, Edwards went out drinking with his fellow detectives in the fraud unit. He couldn’t stop drinking that night. After blacking out, he woke up on his couch to the sound of his wife screaming at him, vowing to never let him do this to her or their family again.

She took the kids and left that morning and, thanks to a series of events that Edwards now credits with saving his life, his partner called their boss and told him to take his gun away. It was rock bottom and finally made him get help, but though he had done the hard part, he couldn’t face his colleagues.

“It was hard to come back to work because I was paranoid about what gossip may have been taking place,” Edwards says.


For Edwards, Guilbeault and Kerr, it’s only conversation and education that will change the culture, which is why all three are coming forward.

Chief Charles Bordeleau agrees. The force has to create that environment and that culture where getting help is OK.

“We’ve done a tremendous service to people with mental health challenges in the community in removing that stigma and we need to continue to do that inside this organization,” Bordeleau says.

Coming forward needs to be seen as “a sign of courage and not weakness,” Bordeleau says. “That’s where your supervisors, colleagues and the organization need to be there for you to help you through that.”

If officers don’t give themselves permission to seek help, it becomes a trap, and the thin blue line becomes a prison wall.

This is the first of a three-part series on officer mental health in the Ottawa Police Service.

Tuesday: Relying on the strength of peers – what is the force doing to help officers struggling and what are some officers doing for themselves?

Wednesday: The business case for resiliency – what do mental health challenges and workplace stress mean for the day-to-day operation of the force?


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