The worst day of Sgt. Ali Moosvi’s career was almost 20 years ago when he uttered the words “there’s been an incident.” With that simple phrase he delivered the tragic news to a young father that his infant son was dead and his wife mortally injured.
The Toronto cop had no idea the effect that delivering the heartbreaking message would have on his own life.
“I would have never have thought that would be the thing to break me," he reflects, two decades onwards.
“I saw this man’s entire world shattered and my son was only a month and a half younger than his,” said Moosvi. “That was a connection I didn’t realize until I got psychological help fourteen years later.”
For years, the veteran officer suffered in silence and lived with the effects of undiagnosed severe depression. His professional and personal life spiraled to a night in 2003 when he found himself contemplating suicide with his service-issued handgun on the rooftop of a parking garage.
It would be ten years before he ever told anyone about that attempt and was eventually diagnosed in 2014 with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
In 2013, Moosvi joined a small project team of officers and, for the first time, divulged to colleagues that he had been suffering in silence.
“There was another team member that was dealing with depression issues and D/Sgt. Aly Virji along with S/Supt. Myron Demkiw and other team members made it a safe space for all of us to support that officer,” he said. “Because I was in a work space that was so supportive of mental health, I ended up talking about some of the challenges I was facing. It was the first time I had ever shared my story with anyone.”
Officers need to support each other and show they care. Reaching out to people and making human connections are the little ways to ‘do something’ that we are looking for. In policing, we need to do for each other what we do everyday for complete strangers
For the last three years, Moosvi and Virji have been delivering presentations on mental health in policing to law enforcement officers across Ontario.
The latest was on October 16 at the Toronto Police Service (TPS) annual Wellness Day at the Toronto police college. The one-day conference is coordinated by the Wellness Unit with the support of the Toronto Police Services Board, the Toronto Police Association and the Senior Officers’ Organization as a way to reinforce the importance of wellness within individuals and as an organization. The theme, ‘A Courageous Conversation’, was proposed by Moosvi, who is now at Traffic Services.
“I can’t change the past and how that has affected my family,” he said. “What I can do, however, is leverage that past to change the culture so, hopefully, other officers do not end up having to endure a culture of silence in which officers are expected to ‘suck it up.’ Officers need to support each other and show they care. Reaching out to people and making human connections are the little ways to ‘do something’ that we are looking for. In policing, we need to do for each other what we do everyday for complete strangers.”
Virji said it has been a pleasure sharing a platform with Moosvi to address the subject.
“He’s so brave and courageous in speaking about his struggles, something that many people aren’t willing to share and he’s doing it in a way that has literally saved lives and is having an incredible impact across the province,” said Virji, who joined the Service 16 years ago. It’s important to recognize that some of our highest performers may be struggling with mental health issues.
“One of the most important lessons I learned from working with Sgt. Moosvi is that you never know who is suffering in silence. I worked with him for a few years and he was performing at a very high level. At the time, I had no idea he was suffering from depression. We need to help everyone feel better, no matter what they are dealing with and where they are on the mental health continuum. The reality is we may never really know where people are, in terms of their mental health, but we need to work based on the assumption that everybody can benefit from a little extra support.”
Other speakers at the event included former Horry County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Paul Butler, University of Toronto Associate Professor of Medicine Dr. Paul Oh on heart health and motivational speaker J.P. McMichael.
Then a Sgt. in Arlington County, McMichael was one of the first responders to the Pentagon on the morning of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Diagnosed with PTSD two years later, the stress became unbearable to the point that he contemplated suicide.
“In October 2003, I sat in my home with the lights off and a gun in my hand,” he said. “Before I did that, I wrote a letter, saying ‘I am sorry that I can no longer deal with what I am going through’. I basically apologized to everyone. I remember bringing the gun up to my head and, as I was about to squeeze the trigger, I held back. My wife had walked out of the family home six months earlier and no one, not even my family, knew. If I had pulled that trigger, I knew my family would say she was responsible for my death and that wasn’t true. She’s the only reason I am standing here right now.”
A former wrestler and competitive mixed martial artist, McMichael started ‘Catalyst of Change Associates’ to help other law enforcement members deal with mental health challenges.
“One of the things I try to do when I speak to officers – particularly the younger ones – is dismiss the stigma that exists that your gun and badge will be taken away, you might be given a desk job or you may be even fired if you disclose you are suffering from depression,” he said. “I try to get that out of their head. I talk about being a wrestler and MMA fighter not because I want people to go, ‘Oh well, you did that and it’s brave’. People don’t expect that from such a person. They expect me to be this big tough guy that doesn’t get upset and cry. That is nonsense. Everyone that wears a weapon and a badge puts on a face when we come to work. We put on this exterior show and a lot of times when we get home, we forget to take it off.”
McMichael said good communication can solve some of the mental health challenges officers face.
“We go to a call and stand for about 20 minutes talking to someone about an issue and we have no idea who that person is,” he added. “We will see our brothers and sisters there and we are completely different. We don’t stop and ask, ‘Are you ok?’ Peer support isn’t rocket science.”
Oh spoke about the 10 steps for better heart health while Butler who, at age 22 became the youngest police chief in South Carolina history when he was appointed to head the Aynor Police Department, said wellness is about understanding crisis.
We are here today to walk this journey together. Your presence guarantees that we will make a difference. Our job is to ensure that we carry it outside of this room, that we reach out to others and that we become that example that they can follow. No matter what position you are in, you are leading today.
“It is understanding that we care about each other,” he said. “We are here today to walk this journey together. Your presence guarantees that we will make a difference. Our job is to ensure that we carry it outside of this room, that we reach out to others and that we become that example that they can follow. No matter what position you are in, you are leading today.”
In her opening remarks to launch the Wellness Day event, Deputy Chief Barbara McLean said the Service is committed to preserving the health and safety of its members who are experiencing mental health and/or addiction issues.
“We have expanded our Psychological Unit to three members and we are investing in the Critical Incidence Response Team through training and new equipment,” she noted. “For the first time this year, we participated in ‘Bell Let’s Talk’ and next year, we will embark on the development of a wellness strategy for the Service. We are going to do this by talking to our members so we can better understand their needs. If we are going to get this right, we need to understand the factors that help promote resilience and recovery in the face of trauma.”
Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) member Uppala Chandrasekera, who is the Co-Chair of the newly established Mental Health & Addictions Advisory Panel, is the Canadian Mental Health Association Public Policy Director and a Mental Health Commission of Canada Board Director.
“In my journey through this field, what I can tell you is that the most significant thing I have seen is the struggle for people to talk about this,” she said. “If I can leave you with anything, it is that silence kills. It’s so important that you talk to each other and your family.”