(WIVB) — The work of law enforcement and other first responders is known to be dangerous and stressful.
But what is less known and talked about is the toll the work has on their mental health. Some departments are beginning to wake up to the reality while others are still behind the curve.
There’s a data gap on first responders who die by suicide. What is available still seems unfathomable.
A white paper commissioned by the Ruderman Foundation found that in 2017, 93 firefighters and 129 police officers died in the line of duty. In contrast, there were at least 103 firefighter suicides and 140 police officer suicides.
The numbers are on the rise, too.
In 2019, at least 89 police officers were killed in the line of duty. But 239 officers died by suicide that same year, according to John Greenan, undersheriff for the Erie County Sheriff’s office.
“You’re almost three times more likely as police officers to die of suicide than you are to actually be killed in the line of duty,” Greenan said.
And these numbers are likely underreported because of the insufficient data on suicides and mental health issues with first responders.
The sheriff’s office, who had a deputy die by suicide earlier this year, want to get in front of the problem. Greenan said the sheriff’s office teaches an intense 3-week course to cadets on learning the coping skills to deal with stress and posttraumatic stress disorder or PTSD from being on the job.
“It shows strength not weakness if you’re willing to say hey, I have a problem here and I need to do something about it to make myself better,” Greenan said.
But they are also bringing in experts to talk straight to first responders about not being afraid to ask for help.
Greenan, a trustee for an organization called Strive to Thrive, is sponsoring an event Friday and Saturday with renowned mental health advocate and former cop, Chris Prochut.
Prochut will discuss his experiences dealing with the media in a high-profile case and how he has overcome his own battles with suicidal thoughts. His goal is to get rid of the stigma with law enforcement and other first responders suffering from mental illness from the tragedies they see on the job.
“I come in and say well, you know what, what if it is you?” Prochut said in an interview with News 4.
“What if it is you suffering from a mental disorder? Can you go get the same help literally you’re telling people to get or will you be seen as a liability, put on the rubber gun squad, lose your job? And too often, our officers suffer in silence because of that stigma.”
Stories of pain
Steven Ritchie has always been a religious man. The retired Lockport police officer was shot on the job in 2003 and said he died three times before getting to and while at the hospital.
His life flashed before his eyes. He spent two years in recovery and returned to work for about 10 more years.
But the PTSD was getting unbearable.
Nightmares – sometimes he’d wake up screaming. Lack of sleep. The smallest of problems would set Ritchie off. Large crowds gave him anxiety. Loud noises would frighten him.
Ritchie was shot at night so when he’d work at night and car lights would shine at his windshield, that would sometimes trigger flashbacks.
He sometimes struggled to work a full shift, and he said he was thankful to have an understanding police chief and captain, realizing that some officers don’t have that kind of support for political reasons.
“Initially, when I survived and woke up in the hospital, I knew that I had gotten a miracle from God, but the next several years it was a big struggle for me with PTSD, my life was in chaos, really,” Ritchie said. “I tried to hold it together, I got back to work, tried to work another 10 years until the PTSD get the best of me.”
Ritchie retired in 2014.
“For a long time, I wondered why God, why did you spare me?” Ritchie said. “I am not anymore special than anyone else who goes through this trauma, who get shot on the job, who died, why? And I know it’s for his glory but I knew ultimately there was something that was bigger.”
Enter Dave Budz, an FBI agent executive director of OpOverwatch, a group of Christ-centered law enforcement officers and chaplains who strive together to minister those in need of help.
The approach many take is to throw more mental health therapy at the problem. But OpOverwatch takes a different approach, Budz said.
“We are faith-based, biblical and Christ-centered,” Budz said.
Budz said police officers are involved in three critical incidents per week that the normal person is never exposed to. Such an environment can lead to cynicism, struggles at home, alcohol, or drug abuse, or worse, suicide.
“The best trauma health is teaching trauma health before the trauma comes,” he said.
Budz asked Ritchie to join the organization, which he launched in 2019.
Ritchie said he was driving home one day thinking about the officer and how God had something bigger for him to do. Is it this, he thought?
“This is what it is,” Ritchie said. “This is the message being delivered to me, this is it.”
Ritchie said he told himself, “Steve, you dive into this because this is the reason why I saved you this OpOverwatch organization. So you run with it, and I did.”
They are coming up on three years doing this work and have introduced hundreds of law enforcement officers to the word of God as a source of relief from the on-the-job tragedies they take home with them.
In April 2019, Amanda Rae Button lost her husband, Chris Button, a police officer in a small town in Wisconsin, who shot himself at a nearby park two weeks after the birth of their daughter.
Button was an EMT/firefighter and 911 dispatcher when she met Chris, the cop. They hit it off immediately and their relationship grew fast.
Button, who still lives in Wisconsin, said no one talks about the aftermath of when someone dies by suicide.
Her life got turned upside down. She overnight became a single mom struggling to cope with the loss of the love of her life.
“I remember just crying on my bed, hysterically crying,” Button said.
She has launched a page on Facebook called “UnButton the Stigma”, where she releases videos, prayers and shares her own personal struggles with he hope that she helps others get through the sadness, depressed and anxiety. Her goal is to speak to law enforcement agencies across the country on what the aftermath of suicide looks like for loved ones left behind.
“I will talk to whomever wants to listen,” Button said. “I just share my story, I share the story of the aftermath of my Chris’s loss. I share the story of my daughter having to survive without her dad.”
“Every day is a new day,” Button said. “So, every day brings new challenges and we’re three-and-a-half years out, but I am still actively grieving.”
Two phrases she repeated several times in the interview with News 4 were “to just hang on one more day” and “It’s OK not to be OK and it’s OK to reach out and ask for help.”
Grieving over the loss has not been easy.
Button said she tried to take her own life three times, but she is finally out of that headspace.
“I am not there anymore, by the grace of God,” Button said. “But I tell that story, too, because I think it needs to be known that when one person decides that fateful moment, you’re not just taking yourself, you’re then taking people with you when you go.”
Chris Prochut was the public information officer for a police department in Illinois when the whole department got rocked by the Drew Peterson case in 2007.
Peterson was a sergeant for the same department Prochut worked for and was convicted of murdering his wife. The case garnered national publicity.
Prochut said his phone rang at all hours from members of the media from across the country. The case caused him huge amounts of stress that piled on him day after day.
He wasn’t sleeping. He’d have outbursts all the time. There were days when he’d plan his suicide.
“When you lose all hope and there is no joy in life everything is gray,” Prochut said. “You’re trying to end this pain and that’s when I began to think, OK, maybe I am going to do it in a neighboring town, I am going to use my firearm, my pain is going to end. People who die by suicide do not want to end their life; they simply want the pain to end and they’ve run out of options or they are too scared to ask. So, we say all the time, reach out for help it is so difficult to do that, so sometimes we need to reach in.”
He decided to seek help as a birthday gift to his wife, he said.
“I was against therapy all together because in my mind what good is talk therapy going to do, but she forced me to go,” Prochut said.
“If you’re not talking, you’re stuffing, and it is all going to come up one day. I want you to take care of it when it hurts.”
Prochut was admitted to an inpatient mental health facility. Then, in the state of Illinois, if someone goes to inpatient mental health, they lose their guns.
Prochut said the department took his gun and put him on the “rubber gun duty.” He finally resigned in 2009. He couldn’t take it anymore.
He moved to Wisconsin and three months prior to his move he had learned of an officer who took his life near the town he planned to move to.
“I felt like how come I can’t get away from this?” Prochut said. “I went inpatient to a mental health center because I was suicidal myself, I now move to a town where there’s an officer who takes his life?”
Prochut said he called the chief of the department that lost the officer by suicide, and he was invited to speak to a group of officers.
“They said, Chris, go out and share your story,” Prochut said. “And I was like who is even going to want to hear this story? My crisis was I couldn’t handle the attack on my department, which I thought was my job to defend as the press information officer.”
Since retiring 12 years ago, Prochut has told his story to thousands of officers and he said he is now beginning to see a paradigm shift, at least at progressive agencies, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“It is this invisible force that silences officers,” Prochut said. “A lot of times we fake it with our mental health, too, because we are so scared of what other people think and we have in our minds so much to lose.”
“It’s a sign of courage to ask for help,” he said. “We tell our officers that you wear your vest, you wear your seatbelt, you use your gun, you make it home at the end of the shift, but what I am concerned about is what you do at home at the end of your shift when you try to process the things that you’ve seen that you can’t unsee.
Prochut’s presentation is on Friday and Saturday from 12:45 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. at the Buffalo Grand Hotel on Church Street. The event is free of charge to all first responders and members of law enforcement.
His website can be found by clicking here.
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If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis, help is available. Erie County’s Crisis Hotline is available 24 hours a day: 716-834-3131. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is also available 24 hours a day: 1-800-273-8255. For more information, visit CrisisServices.org.
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