“I courted suicide twice in my career; once 10 years ago and once in 2008,” said Cst. Eli Edwards to a silent and captivated crowd of over 60 attendees at the Student for Heroes event in the Observatory, Nov. 14.
The theme of keeping the stigma out of the conversation about mental health was very present throughout the event, which was held to raise awareness about first-responders facing post-traumatic stress disorder and mental illness sometime in their career.
Const. Edwards and Const. Brenda Kerr sat on the purple couch on stage while sharing their own dark courting’s with mental health and being afraid to admit they were struggling to their colleagues.
“There is a greater emphasis on support now,” said Edwards. “Before, you wouldn’t come out and say you were struggling with mental illness, especially in the police force, because your career would essentially end. But with what has transpired this year and the attention received in the media, putting the spotlight on first responder suicides, I feel we are at a good place.”
He said it was this shift of support that gave him the incentive he needed to come forward about what he was feeling. He couldn’t stand by any longer or see anyone else hurt, and the strength and necessity he felt from that helped him to speak out.
Const. Kerr also openly admitted to having dark struggles with mental illness.
“I have been a police officer for 20 years now and 10 years ago I would not have admitted what I will be admitting here today,” she said. “What I am admitting, is that I am challenged by depression.”
Const. Kerr was visibly struggling with the confession. Holding back tears, she said, “I’m open to (speaking about) what I’ve done now and even my darkest of thoughts, and what depression has meant for me.”
She said one of the hardest challenges she had to overcome was comparing herself to her colleagues.
“We would be sent out to a really tough and raunchy call and my colleagues would all be okay but I wouldn’t feel so great about it,” she said. “Then I would wonder, ‘if they are okay then maybe I should be okay too’.”
The constables discussed the issue of mental illness often being seen as a weakness, especially in a career where the expectation is to always be a hero.
“As someone who has been through the wormhole that is mental illness, I can tell you that through time it actually becomes a strength,” Kerr said.
Edwards and Kerr like to refer to themselves now as “mental health warriors.”
“No matter what career you are going into, you are going to go through challenges in your life and sometimes end up in a deep dark place,” said Edwards. “It is okay to start working through your own feelings and learn how to express yourself and enter into those conversations before ending up at a really bad point.”
The fundraiser had silent auction items, door prizes and live local bands to keep the mood light and to help with donations. The student leads for the event decided 75 per cent of the funds raised would go to the three children of 43-year-old Ottawa Staff Sgt. Kal Ghadban, who committed suicide in September.
The other 25 per cent is going to the organization Heroes are Human, which helps to raise awareness about emergency workers dealing with PTSD.
Natalie Labelle, volunteer at Heroes are Human and a paramedic for eight years, said she saw her colleagues affected by trauma and found this organization by looking for a way to help them.
“Mental health is a big stigma and people are afraid,” she said. “We are starting to change stigma by informing everyone and making it an open conversation. Learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms, because knowing those as well as how to approach a person in pain could really make that difference.”
Edwards said keeping the conversation about mental health open and providing overflowing support is helping to prove to victims of mental illness that they can confide in their loved ones and not have to be afraid of being judged.
“It is that fear that prevents us from getting better. Let’s break past accepting answers of ‘I’m fine’ from our friends and family, and take that extra step and look deeper.”