The First Responders Mental Health Stigma: Can It Be Changed?

by Renee Fox
Police Officer

Suicide. What does that word mean to you? Do you think it would change if someone close to you died by suicide? Think about that for a minute. Think about if you worked in a high stress job day in and day out with the training and conditioning to believe that you cannot feel sad or depressed or you would be considered or seen as weak.

Think about what it would be like to be a police officer or first responder. Think about how each day you see people at their worst. Think about how people do not call first responders when they are having a good day or just to say hi. Think about seeing things no one should ever see in their lifetime over and over again, and not being able to express how deep it may hurt you or sadden you. How would you deal with that? How would you handle depression or PTSD as a result of the job you do and not being able to go to your co-workers without being stigmatized or taken off of the road for fear of being a liability?

Many police officers deal with these exact things. Many police officers watch people die that they could not save. They may see children being abused, and a justice system not doing what it is supposed to do to protect the children. They may see the same battered husband or wife over and over again because they are too scared to leave. Imagine for a moment some of those images. Imagine those images playing over and over inside your head that you cannot shut off.

Police work is a job that you do not take home with you. You cannot do police work from home; however, what people do not know is that a police officer is always on duty. A police officer will sit with his back to a wall while at a restaurant in order to see who is coming in and out. A police officer is constantly scanning their surroundings while at a bank depositing a check or just opening a savings account for their child. A police officer is always looking around to make sure no harm is coming to anyone around them.

I am a police officer and have been for eleven years. I was twenty-two when I started. I work in a suburban police department, which is relatively busy. I have seen my fair share of homicides, rapes, robberies, burglaries, suicides, child abuse cases and domestic assaults. I probably see more than many officers because I am the crime scene investigator of my squad.

In this department, we ride in our vehicles solo but we have sector partners. A sector is a specific area that we cover while on duty. When I first came on the job, I met Joe. Joe and I clicked instantly. We became sector partners and our professional relationship, as always, referred to as “good cop, bad cop.” Naturally, he was the “bad cop” and I was the “good cop.” He was funny, witty, a constant jokester and was always doing uncanny impersonations of famous people. He was always smiling and never let anyone go through a day without making them laugh.

We saw our fair share of traumatizing things, but the funny thing about this job is that one traumatic incident could affect everyone or no one. My trauma is different from Joe’s, and Joe’s trauma is different from mine, and different from every other officer we work with. We had a great relationship. He knew my strengths and my weaknesses and I knew his. What we didn’t know about each other were the traumas we had seen that created personal demons. I look back and didn’t think it was important to know those things about Joe.

Fast forward to March 28, 2015 when Joe died. At six something in the morning, I was taking my trash out and getting ready to head into work. I received a phone call, which was weird, from my supervisor. I remember him telling me that, “Joe had killed himself this morning.” At that instant, my heart broke and fell apart. I thought he was kidding and fell to my knees in my driveway.

At that moment, suicide became a whole different word to me. Before March 28, 2015, suicide meant to me someone who was selfish, a coward, someone who took the easy way out, or just another death. After March 28, 2015, suicide took on a whole new meaning for me. Suicide to me means struggle, battle, demons, mental illness, someone who lost their personal battle with the demons they had fought so hard to get rid of. Suicide means loneliness, sadness, fear, truth and lost.

I feel ashamed that I did not see how sad, lonely, lost and fearful Joe was. I feel ashamed that as his partner I didn’t know he was struggling with things from work. I feel ashamed that I did not know he was battling depression alone, and was scared to treat it for fear someone from work would find out and ostracize him. I feel ashamed that he felt he could not come to me, the only person at work he cried in front of, and tell me that he was struggling.

As law enforcement officers we are conditioned to believe that our emotions should be suppressed. We are conditioned to not talk about whether something bothers us. We are conditioned to believe that if someone cries or talks about a personal struggle they are considered weak. I feel ashamed that I fell into that category. I lost sight of what Joe was dealing with. I lost sight of the signs he displayed to me that were his way of reaching out for help.

I want to break this idea. In fact, I want to destroy it. I want people to understand that first responders are people too, and we do have feelings. First responders do internalize things but need an outlet. First responders need to be checked out by their loved ones or their co-workers. The stigma that is attached to first responders and mental health needs to end. There needs to be training in each department every year or at least an evaluation. We have to maintain firearms every year, why not mental health? Then again, who is to say who is “stable” enough to work the road? How do you force an officer to talk to a therapist, and not say what they want to hear? How do you force an officer to say the truth without fear of being involuntarily committed and fear of losing their job? There needs to be resources provided to officers. There needs to be encouragement from the administration to use those resources. There needs to be an understanding that officers see horrible things and that it is okay to talk about them and how it made you feel.

I may be just one officer, but I want to make a change. I want to end suicide but, more specifically, first responder suicide. I created a website that puts resources for police officers, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, correctional officers and dispatchers in one forum. This forum is a place for first responders’ families as well who watch us struggle and shut down and do not know how to help. This is a place that other first responders from all over the world can provide information and resources specific to their location. This website is just a start for what needs to change in the world of mental health and first responders. This needs to be done for officers like Joe and anyone else who has felt that this is truly the only option. It is not the only option. There are resources available and I am in the process of working on getting many of them on this website. Registration for the website, The Thin Blue Line of Suicide, is free and anyone can contribute.

May my partner Joe be at peace 5-16-1967 to 3-28-15

About the Author: Renee Fox is an eleven year police veteran. She is a field training officer, bicycle officer, fingerprint examiner and a crime scene investigator.

3 thoughts on “The First Responders Mental Health Stigma: Can It Be Changed?

  1. Renee,
    I’ve been there as well. My best friend and fellow police officer completed suicide while I was on the phone with him. We had been friends for over twenty years. It’s been a long journey and now we are working on forming a CISM team in the area I served. I find that by sharing our stories and bringing to light the issue of law enforcement PTSI/suicide we bring meaning to the horrors we have witnessed. Thank you for being bold enough to step forward and speak out to help break the stigma and change the culture.

    1. Hi Rick

      I can’t even imagine how you felt and still feel. I hope that you are finding peace in it somewhere and are able to grieve in a healthy way.

      Thank you for being apart of this movement and keeping people talking about PTSD and police suicide. It’s a huge epidemic within our family and the thin blue line family needs to be there for each other.

      Thank you for your story and please register for my site. Once you get your CISM team information onto my page.

      Thanks again.

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