Importance of Suicide Awareness
“You’re fired.” No one wants to hear that phrase, but this is exactly what I heard after an internal investigation. After being driven home on a Friday afternoon and walking into an empty house, I could only think of the embarrassment I was going to cause my family and friends. They did not need to experience that because of my own stupidity. My dad was trying to call me, as was a friend, but I did not answer the phone. I did not want to talk to anyone. My identity had been stripped from me.
Both my dad and my friend know that if I do not answer the phone for them, something is not right. My dad called my sister and suggested she go over to my house to check on me. It was good she did because I was sitting in the garage with a bottle of wine and a bottle of sleeping pills. I thought killing myself was the best way to save my family from having to deal with my mistakes. That plan went out the window when my sister walked up to the house with my nieces and nephew. I could not do that to them. They were the only kids I had, and I did not want the last memory of their aunt to be her death. Those kids switched my focus without even knowing it.
Like many other first responders, I kept that episode to myself. I did not share with my sister, other family members, or friends that I considered suicide in that moment. I contacted the Employee Assistance Program and went to counseling. However, I did not tell my counselor about it either because I had the common misconception that the counselor was a direct pipeline to management and would report everything I said.
Ultimately, I was brought back to work with a demotion, and I did not want to risk the possibility that my agency would find out and take my gun, remove me from patrol, or make me undergo a fitness-for-duty evaluation. I thought getting help showed weakness, until 8 ½ years later when I realized there is a problem in this profession with officers not getting help and dying by suicide. How many of my coworkers were thinking the same? How many could I possibly help by sharing my experience?
I was reluctant to share my story with anyone from my agency because I did not know how they would react and did not want to appear weak. After working my way through the promotion process again, I could have easily just kept it compartmentalized and not spoken of it again. But, I shared it during an in-service class and quickly found out I was not alone. We are very good at helping others solve their problems, while we keep our own bottled up inside. When we break our leg, we go get an X-ray and have it treated, but when our mind is broken, we think we can fix it ourselves.
With the stressors and pressures of law enforcement today, we have more of a responsibility than ever to take care of each other and recognize when our coworkers — regardless of rank — are struggling emotionally. We cannot be afraid to talk about it!
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. As leaders, if we think a suicide “won’t happen here,” we are wrong. We must do a better job of recognizing when our people are struggling, both personally and professionally, and do what we can to guide them to the resources available to help them recover emotionally.
As leaders, we can lead by example and utilize the same available resources because we do not suddenly become immune to struggles as we get promoted. Our stressors are certainly different and compounded by what we experienced earlier in our careers. Admitting we need help will show our people it is OK to reach out for help themselves, which will lead to a healthy, productive workforce that takes care of each other. That should be the goal of every organization.
FOR IMMEDIATE HELP
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Crisis Text Line
Text BLUE to 741741
Veterans Crisis Line
Heidi A. Ramsey, an instructor in the Leadership Education Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"As leaders, we can lead by example and utilize the same available resources because we do not suddenly become immune to struggles as we get promoted."