KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Members of the law enforcement community and emergency services industry say suicide among its members is more prevalent than the general public might know.
More police officers and firefighters died by suicide than in the line of duty in 2017. The number of known police suicides this year is on pace to surpass that of last year.
According to BLUE H.E.L.P., seven Michigan law enforcement officers died by suicide from 2016 to 2018.
Members of each field said their agencies are highlighting suicide and mental health resources like never before, in an effort to curb the loss of life.
Several officers, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, and firefighters in West Michigan spoke to Newschannel 3 about their experiences with mental health and suicide. They talked about the traumas they face in their daily lives, which experts say is a major contributor to the suicide rate among emergency responders.
Michigan State Police Sgt. Chris Hayward has been with the agency for a quarter century. He said mental health is treated much differently within the ranks than it once was.
“Things and stigmas about people wanting to have better mental health have definitely progressed,” Hayward said. “That wouldn’t have been very well received 25 years ago, and now it’s more understood and there are more resources available.”
Hayward said the state police has a peer support program in place. He also said troopers are more actively involved in checking in on each other.
The state police agency has an Office of Behavioral Health and on staff police psychologists.
Hayward said the agency also uses something called critical incident stress debriefing. It’s not new, Haywood said, but it’s being used much more often. Troopers who’ve worked in high-stress situations meet with peers and others who lived through similar incidents and who can assist in processing the experiences both psychologically and physically.
“That’s been available for a long time, but again I think people reaching out for that kind of help now is much more acceptable among your peer groups,” he said.
Haywood also offered a message for his peers.
“Please know that you’re not alone and that you have a whole group of co-workers, of people who have the same profession that you are in, or that you were in, who support you,” he said. “If it’s not going well with what you’re doing on your own and you’re having some very withdrawn, depressive, or possibly suicidal thoughts, we’re all here with you and you have our support.”
As of Sept, 15 this year, 146 American peace officers have died by suicide in 2019, according to Massachusetts based nonprofit BLUE H.E.L.P.
That number included 22 retired officers.
In 2018, the organization reports, 167 officers died by suicide.
A 2017 study conducted by the Ruderman Family Foundation showed 103 firefighters died by suicide that year. That’s compared to 93 who died in the line of duty during the same time frame.
The Journal of Emergency Medical Services conducted a survey in 2015 of emergency medical services (EMS) industry men and woman.
The survey responses came from 4,022 emergency medical technicians and paramedics. Among them, 1,383 reported they had contemplated suicide; and 225 said they had attempted to take their life through suicide.
Aaron Smith said he had enough of being a cop with the Battle Creek Police Department. One day he walked out on the only life he knew.
“I was the S.W.A.T. guy, I was the sniper. I was on the gang unit. I did this, this, this, and this, and then I broke. … I walked out,” Smith said.
Smith said the stresses of police work built up over time.
“You’re dealing with murder victims, their families, dead children, abused children. Really being in investigations started taking its toll on me,” Smith said. “I was done. I was burned out; depression, anxiety, whatever you want to call it. … I’m not a psychiatrist or any of that, but I knew I was done.”
Smith said he noticed his behaviors changing, his anger rising, a shorter temper, and a lack of interest in the things he loved doing.
“I was very angry … bringing that anger home,” Smith said. “I had reached a limit to where something bad was gonna happen, and I didn’t know even what that was, but I had enough.”
Smith walked out of the job not knowing if he’d ever return.
After some soul searching, researching, and ultimately understanding what he was going through, Smith returned to the department to continue as a detective. He said when he returned, he was surprised so many of his colleagues opened up about their own struggles.
“I had all these folks coming to me with, ‘man, how did you do this? I’m going through this. I’m going through this,'” he said. “I began to actually help people.”
Smith said he wants officers and other first responders to feel comfortable speaking up about their struggles.
“Hey, we’re all dealing with something. Don’t care how tough you are, how cool you are, what you’ve seen, what you’ve been through. We are all dealing with stuff,” he said. “It’s acceptable to say, ‘man, it’s going crazy. There’s a lot of people out there,’ but to look in the mirror and say, ‘I’ve got some issues and I’ve got to get some help,’ we’re still not there yet, and that’s where I want us to be.”
Right of Bang
Smith continues to address his own struggles However, he said, he’s now helping others.
He and a colleague with the Battle Creek Police Department have created a class for first responders that aims to better prepare them for mental health struggles.
Called “Right of Bang,” a play on old military term, “left of bang,” the class addresses situational awareness up to the point of conflict or when damage is done.
Smith said the Right of Bang is what happens after the conflict, and is what police officers, paramedics, firefighters, dispatchers, corrections officers don’t address enough before things get bad.
“My goal is just to reach as many people as possible and to just begin sharing these stories,” Smith said.
“I feel good at least being open enough to start getting this out there because I think so many of us are just afraid of that initial, I’m having issues,” Smith said. “Once they do, it’s that first breath of, this is OK.”
BLUE H.E.L.P. tracks the number of officers who died by suicide.
Jeff McGill is BLUE H.E.L.P.’s vice president and co-founder.
He said the organization was created with a mission to push the envelop in the discussion of mental health and suicide within law enforcement. After initial push-back from within the police culture, he said, the discussion is gaining energy.
“We have seen definite change with big organizations stepping up and openly discussing this,” McGill said.
McGill is himself a career law enforcer in Florida. He said officers often don’t open up about their mental health struggles, and he believes it stems from how they’re trained to act as officers.
“We start training them from day one to be in charge, to be in control of every situation all the time,” McGill said. “They’re not allowed to lose control, either emotionally or physically; they have to maintain in chaos.”
If they feel the need to seek help, McGill said, it becomes a problem.
“That’s a problem because it’s everything we’ve told them not to do,” he said. “They feel like they’re out of control and they feel like they have failed themselves.”
Law enforcement agencies throughout the county invest in equipment and training that allows officers to come home safely to their families after a long shift, McGill said.
“We lose less officers every year to conflicts with bad guys, we’ve not done that for mental health and suicide,” he said.
Kyle Lindsey’s friends and family said they always marveled at how passionate he was about helping others grow into better people.
Sadly, Lindsey’s own personal growth halted June 5, when the 32-year-old first responder took his own life outside his Battle Creek home.
“He was a great person,” his friend Katy Brunner said. “He was an amazing influence on my job as a paramedic.”
Lindsey served as a paramedic for LifeCare Ambulance Service in battle Creek. He also served as a volunteer firefighter with the Leroy Township Fire Department.
Lindsey’s nephew, Chandler Barney, served alongside his uncle on the fire department.
“I started off about 10 years ago going to calls in the back seat of his car with him, and you know I would have to stay in the back and watch him go in there and do his thing,” Barney said.
The two only served a short while together before Lindsey’s death.
“At first, it was really hard to even be at the fire station knowing that he wouldn’t be there anymore,” Barney said, “but over time I started getting a drive to better myself in that field for Kyle.”
He said he wishes his uncle had spoken more openly about his mental health struggles.
“Bringing on heartbreak to all the people that love you and are affected by it does no good to anybody,” he said. “I would just say, you know, talk about it, at least talk about it.”
Brunner said the general public probably never considers the trauma emergency responders experience on a daily basis.
“They go through a different type of stress than your home life personal stress, and it feels better, I believe as a first responder, to be able to talk to someone who could possibly understand what you’re going through,” she said. “It’s hard to sit down and talk to someone who doesn’t work in our profession because I don’t believe they really understand what we have to do on a day-to-day basis and how rough calls do pile up.”
Brunner said she believes a lack of counselors with emergency services experience or training, might prohibit some struggling with mental health to seek help.
“People have to get to the point where they’re willing, and we have to get to a point where the system has enough time for everyone,” she said.
Lindsey’s family and friends set up a memorial fund in his honor. The money raised will help pay for students to take emergency medical services classes at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek.
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) said for anyone experiencing a mental health crisis, calling 911 or talking with police may be necessary.
- NAMI has a website dedicated to mental health resources for law enforcement members and their families.
- Anyone experiencing a crisis is encouraged to use the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)
- The Suicide Prevention Resource Center has its own website dedicated to law enforcement.
- BLUE H.E.L.P. also has a website with resources specifically for law enforcement.