'I felt that I wasn't valued': In the wake of another OPP suicide, a former officer speaks out

At the north Toronto flower shop where she works today, Sheri Kewley doesn't have a pension. She makes a lot less than she did as a police officer. 

But it's amongst the blooms and greenery that she finds her happiness now.

Kewley, a former officer with the Ontario Provincial Police, served with the force for 10 years and retired in 2006. Since then, suicide has claimed the lives of two of her fellow officers — two too many. 

Roch Durivage was one of them. 

Durivage, an OPP constable based at a west-end Ottawa detachment, took his life this week, marking the 13th reported suicide of an active or retired member of the force since 2012. Kewley learned of his death Wednesday, when an email went out from the president of the union representing OPP members, the Ontario Provincial Police Association. 

"I knew Roch when he came on the job. He was a rookie working at the detachment that I worked at. And he was such a solid guy. He'd come out of the military really smart, really humble — always had a smile on his face... He didn't seem like the kind of person that would go through something like that."

'It's real'

But of course there is no one kind of person that struggles with mental health.

Kewley knows that firsthand.

Ten years ago, she says she would have never admitted she suffered from depression. But in the wake of yet another life lost to suicide, she's chosen to speak out now about what she says is a lack of support for people suffering inside the force — and a layer of upper management that she believes is out of touch with those struggles.

You are heroes in every sense of the word; however the burden you carry cannot and should not be shouldered alone. - Rob Jamieson, Ontario Provincial Police Association

"Not everyone, some are great. Some need to reflect on how they treat people," she said. "It's real. When someone thinks they're going to get shamed for saying, 'I'm not well and I need time off.' That's what results in people like Roch taking their lives."

Kewley's own experience with depression began around the time she returned to work after maternity leave. A few weeks in, she said her sergeant called her into his office and asked if she was okay. "You don't seem like yourself... you should go and talk to somebody," she remembers him telling her.

At first, she resisted. But the feelings of worthlessness only grew when a position she applied for was given to someone she believes wasn't qualified for the job.

"Not getting that job somehow just made everything collapse on me," she said. That's when Kewley visited her doctor and was put on sick leave for three months. 

Perception that those who help don't need it

Formally diagnosed with depression, Kewley was on therapy and medication, finally starting to feel better. But things only went downhill, she says, when she applied for a transfer within the force and a higher-ranking member suggested she was faking her illness.

"I felt that I wasn't valued. And my mental health and personal issues in relation to my job — they weren't valued," she said.

Mark Boschler/CBC

Between the death, car accidents and family tragedies they respond to on a regular basis, being an officer is hard enough. "You always sort of see people at their worst," said Kewley.

But on top of that, she says, is the perception that those whose job it is to help aren't supposed to need help themselves.

"A lot of times, officers are afraid to speak up and say they're unwell because they don't want to risk not being able to get a transfer, not being able to get a promotion, because they've got that mark against them for being off."

It's a problem the OPP has vowed to look into. In August 2018, Vince Hawkes, then-OPP commissioner, launched an internal review into officer suicides — something they expect to complete this spring.

Review expected to be completed in spring

The union too acknowledges more needs to be done and says it's hoping to take tangible action towards a comprehensive mental health plan, the details of which will likely be announced within weeks, said Ontario Provincial Police Association President Rob Jamieson.

"We sacrifice ourselves piece by piece, in the name of keeping our communities safe," he said in a letter to members this week. "For that, you are heroes in every sense of the word; however the burden you carry cannot and should not be shouldered alone."

Teghan Beaudette/CBC

"I'm here to say front and centre that in fact stigma creates a significant barrier for those seeking treatment within the culture of the OPP," he told CBC News. "The criticisms that are out there, some of them are very valid and we have to do better."

For her part, Kewley is trying to be optimistic.

"I hope that we can get to the point that nobody is afraid to get up and say they're suffering with mental illness or that they need help," she said.

"I just hope that the people at the top will look at themselves as they look at this."