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'It's an epidemic': Greece police chief calls for cultural shift to prevent officer suicide

Sep 23, 2019

Credit freeimages.com/Elvis Santana

So far this year, at least 158 members of law enforcement have died by suicide in the U.S. 

One group that tracks the statistics says police departments don't always report these deaths.

"It's happening all around the country in department of any size. It's male, female, every race, every age group," says Karen Solomon, president and co-founder of  Blue H.E.L.P., an organization dedicated to honoring the service of law enforcement officers who take their own lives, the same way officers who die in the line of duty are honored.

"You serve 20 years on the job, you deserve recognition the same as anybody else," she says. "You deserve a flag on your casket; your family deserves to be supported."

Solomon, who lives in Massachusetts, has been married to a police officer for 18 years. She says the daily stresses members of law enforcement face is one way they're vulnerable to mental health problems. Perception and stigma is another.

"We consider them to be heroes and we don't want heroes to be fallible," she says. "We want them to be perfect."

That's why, according to Solomon, officers often avoid seeking help. They don't want to appear weak and jeopardize their jobs.

Greece Police Chief Patrick Phelan agrees. He knows officers who have taken their own lives.

"It's incredibly traumatic but we have a culture where we really don't talk about it," he says.  "We don't address it; it's kind of whispered about and we try to push it aside. We need to completely shift our culture. When that happens, we need to talk about it. We need to address it. We need to understand if that officer exhibited any red flags along the way, because usually they did."

Phelan is in the process of implementing what he calls a robust and diverse wellness program for the Greece Police Department. He expects it to be in place by the end of the year.

Access to mental health care is a part of it. It also includes peer support and training for officers to help them recognize signs of trauma in themselves and positive ways to deal with it.

"Police officers experience trauma over the course of their careers and they experience accumulated trauma and the trauma builds up," Phelan says. "If it's not dealt with properly it results in PTSD; it results in mental health disorders, anxiety, depression, and that leads to some very bad things, and if not properly dealt with, it leads to suicide."

Phelan says government could help by agreeing to fund wellness programs and services for officers.  He also urges police executives to buy into what he calls a culture shift, in which they actively secure and encourage the use of these services.

In some cases, it’s governments that are taking action.

A new state law was enacted in Illinois this month allowing police, firefighters, and other first responders to confidentially sign up for mental health counseling so they don't have to reveal this to their supervisors.

Solomon says the fact that such legislation was needed is evidence of a cultural problem.

"We have to pass a law to make it okay for them to get help?", she asked. "That in itself is mind boggling because why do they need this exception? They don't have to pass a law for me to get help; they don't have to pass a law for my neighbor to get help."

Phelan has taken on a new role this year. In July, he was sworn in as President of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police. During his acceptance speech, he said one of his priorities is to help officers and families through the tragedy of suicide.

"It's a huge problem," he emphasized. "I generally describe it as an epidemic in our profession. It's by far the number one killer of police officers in America."

The 2019 New York State Law Enforcement Suicide Awareness Walk will take place in the town of Greece on Saturday, Sept. 28.  It starts at 10 a.m. at the Town Hall campus on Vince Tofany Boulevard.