In a time when police deaths from suicide are nearly equal to those who have died in the line of service, Region officers saw a need to take action.
“Statistics show that the amount of deaths from police suicide is almost equal to the amount of officers who died in the line of duty now,” Highland police Cmdr. John Banasiak said. “It was saddening to hear. It surprised me.”
Last year, 159 police officers took their own lives, according to Blue HELP. In contrast, the amount of officers who died in the line of duty was a total of 166, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
Earlier this month, officers from the Highland, Griffith and Munster police departments gathered for the agencies’ first collaborative Suicide Prevention Awareness training.
The training sessions were initiated by Banasiak and Chief Peter Hojnicki, of the Highland Police Department, and were facilitated by North Township Trustee Frank Mrvan.
Hojnicki, who has served in law enforcement for 35 years, said, for the most part, the issue has stayed in the dark.
“This problem has always existed and only now is it coming to light with what’s happening and why it’s happening,” Hojnicki said. “We want to make sure people get the help they need.”
Banasiak said in his more than 30-year law enforcement career, he has seen things that have stayed with him to this day.
“We get called when people are in dire need of help,” Banasiak said. “I’ve seen horrific wrecks. One time I saw a man burn up in a van that was on fire when firefighters couldn’t find a way to get to him. We’ve dealt with suicide deaths and overdoses. We see a lot of things people shouldn’t see.”
Social workers Erica Rios, of the Griffith Police Department, and Rosie Quintanilla, of the North Township trustee’s office, headed the training. Mrvan said both social workers are certified in QPR, an acronym for a suicide prevention technique called “Question, Persuade and Refer.”
“For the third straight year we saw a rise in police suicides,” Mrvan said. “It’s alarming. Police are exposed to horrific crimes and accidents every day. This helps create a peer education group to identify the signs of suicidal thoughts in other officers, such as isolation, increased alcohol use and depression and to be able to give them support.”
Mrvan said the North Township trustee’s office recently has hosted similar projects such as “13 Reasons Why Not,” which aims at helping students recognize suicidal behaviors in peers.
“I hope they use the services we can provide and know they have partners in this,” Quintanilla said. “They’re not alone.”
‘Vicarious trauma is real’
The Suicide Prevention Awareness sessions focused on teaching officers how to recognize suicidal tendencies and how help others connect with mental health providers. Beyond responding to 911 calls from the public, officers learned how to turn their attention to those serving alongside them and recognize when a fellow officer may be struggling with suicidal thoughts.
Secondary or vicarious trauma happens when someone sees, hears or reads about a traumatic incident and is affected mentally and emotionally, Rios said.
“Vicarious trauma is real, and it’s normal in a job where they are dealing with crisis situations 99% of the time,” Rios said. “When you’re exposed over and over again to trauma, even the smallest thing can trigger a bad memory. Our brains are not set up to deal with these things on a day-to-day basis. Normal people don’t regularly see dead bodies, horrible accidents, domestic abuse or overdoses.”
As a result of the seminars, the Highland Police Department is adopting an internal mental health wellness policy. Following suit, the Griffith Police Department is adopting its first policy on how to recognize and respond to a fellow officer who may be having suicidal thoughts, Rios said.
Rios said she is currently one of two police department social workers in the state; the other is employed by the Bloomington Police Department. As a social worker for Griffith police, she helps officers connect with resources and services when they see a civilian or co-worker in need of assistance. She said things like mental health and addiction counseling act as prevention measures against suicide and substance abuse.
“Chicago has had social workers embedded in their police forces for quite some time, but on this side of the border it’s new,” Rios said. “Right now, it’s in its infancy stage. Fingers crossed, as time goes on we see more departments recognizing the need for this.”
Rios said she is supervising a social worker intern who will begin serving the Cedar Lake Police Department in January.
Banasiak said stigmas against mental health have put a silencer on discussions among those wearing the badge for fear of judgment.
“We are trying to change the culture, and it’s going to be difficult to change,” Banasiak said. “We have to take baby steps. People may feel they will be looked down on or feel too vulnerable to talk about these things. I think this class is a positive step in the right direction.”
The training likely will be continued in the years to come, Banasiak said. He said while some people only last a few years in law enforcement, others find it’s more than a career but a life-calling. For those who dedicate their lives to police work, traumatic situations they encounter on the job can weigh heavy and strain relationships with loved ones, Mrvan added.
“An important part of this is while these men and women see trauma in their work lives, they eventually take off their uniforms and go home to be loving husbands, wives, mothers, fathers and coaches,” Mrvan said. “They live vulnerable lives. First responders have to walk that difficult line.”
There will be additional sessions on Thursday for the officers in the three departments who could not make it to the prior session.