Apr 15 2014
MONTREAL - Jacques-Denis Simard knows first-hand how the stressful work of a police officer can sometimes lead to depression, addiction or suicide.
For more than 10 years, the retired Sûreté du Québec officer has headed up a specialized treatment centre in Quebec City that caters mostly to police officers, soldiers and paramedics.
Most years, counsellors at La Vigile treat about 50 police officers from across the province who seek help for a variety of personal problems, ranging from burnout to depression.
So Simard said he was disheartened to learn about the deaths over the weekend of two police officers who had committed suicide.
A Montreal police detective killed himself Saturday after barricading himself in his Longueuil home. Several hours earlier, the body of Éric Martin, a former SQ captain, was pulled out of a lake near Sorel. Martin, 49, had been missing from his Montreal home since December.
“It’s very sad because they know they have access to help,” Simard said in a telephone interview from Quebec City.
Police officers are trained to be strong and to support others, so they find it hard to ask for help themselves, Simard said. “They think they can sort out their problems on their own.”
But Simard said that is often not the case.
Since police departments have improved employee assistance programs, suicides among police officers have dropped in Quebec, he said.
Suicides among Montreal police officers have plummeted since the force introduced a suicide prevention program called Together for Life in 1997. There were 14 cases of suicide between 1986 and 1996. After the program was implemented, there were only four cases of suicide between 1997 and 2008, according to a study by researchers at the Université du Québec à Montréal.
As part of the program, officers in distress can call a hotline number 24 hours a day and speak to a colleague who has been trained in crisis management.
Simard has been working with stressed-out police officers since 1988, when he was responsible for rolling out an employee assistance program for officers in rural Quebec.
During the five years he ran the support program, Simard discovered that many officers, especially those living in the regions, were uncomfortable seeking help in traditional settings like hospitals, clinics or in group therapy because they might be recognized.
So after retiring from the SQ in 1994, Simard began working on a plan to open a treatment centre that mainly caters to law enforcement officers.
Today, La Vigile is a 16-bed centre that offers month-long programs to treat depression and addiction and a 15-day program that deals with post-traumatic stress.
The cost of the programs is often covered by the officers’ group insurance plans. The centre receives some of its funding from officers who have contributions deducted from their pay.
Simard said officers often call for help when they’re in crisis, which means they need immediate care.
Officers are trained to deal with the difficulties they encounter on the job, he said, but problems often arise when they have trouble at home, like a breakup, a family member becoming ill or other personal issues.
“They can be stressed out from work and problems at home can provoke a crisis,” Simard said.
Although he said his treatment centre has been able to help many officers overcome suicidal thoughts, the recent deaths of Martin and the Montreal police detective are proof that some officers are more difficult to reach.
Simard urged stressed-out officers to contact their employee assistance programs sooner rather than later. “There is help available 24 hours a day and they need to use the services,” he said.