Local deputy's death sparks conversation about police suicides

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WACO, Texas (KWTX) The recent death of a McLennan County deputy is creating awareness about police suicide.

(Photo by Clint Webb)

"We deal with quite a few suicides in the county, but it's very different when one of your own people takes their own life," said Sheriff Parnell McNamara. "It's always a very sad thing when you lose one of your own."

For the third year in a row, police suicides have outnumbered line of duty deaths, according Blue H.E.L.P., a non-profit run by active and retired officers advocating for greater mental health resources for law enforcement.

"The heart of an officer is to do what is right by everyone and to do the best job that we can, and sometimes, we need help," said Lydia Alvarado, Chief of Police for the City of Bellmead.

Alvarado, who's been teaching mental health peace officer certification courses since 2003 and critical incident training (CIT) since 2005, is considered a local expert in mental health as it relates to law enforcement.

"The stigma is there that we're the strong ones, and we are, our coping skills are higher - the higher expectations, I think, go hand-in-hand with higher expectations of how we can cope with every situation," said Alvarado. "We all need to remember that an officer is human."

According to Blue H.E.L.P., there were 160 verified police suicides in 2018.

"Statistics across this nation are growing higher each year," said Alvarado.

So far in 2019, at least 31 law enforcement officers have taken their own lives, including a young McLennan County jail deputy who graduated from the police academy less than a year ago.

While the average police officer who commits suicide is a 41-year-old male with 15 years of service, the female deputy in her 20s shows there's no 'poster child' for officers struggling with mental illness, and it's shining a spotlight on the need to better protect those who protect the public...sometimes from themselves.

"People may look at law enforcement and say, 'aw they're big tough guys, they're big tough women, they can deal with it,' but we have feelings too, we can get broken down like anybody else," said McNamara.

Her death over the weekend has sparked sadness, anger, and frustration in the local law enforcement community.

"That's permanent, ya know, we don't want to lose that life," said McNamara.

While mental health resources differ per agency, McNamara said MCSO offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which includes counseling and has two on-call ministers for employees who reach out.

McNamara said counseling had also been offered to employees affected by the deputy's death, and some had taken the help.

"Talk to someone about it, talk to a professional, most of the things that trouble all of us can be resolved - in the right way," said McNamara.

Alvarado says part of the problem is, for a variety of reasons, officers don't always take the help that's available for mental health and wellness.

"We need to learn how to identify, we need to be strong enough to come forward, both to help ourselves and to help each other, so that we can further prevent this," said Alvarado. "There are so many different resources to actually accomplish that goal."

She said getting over the stigma would create an easier path for those seeking help.

"I encourage the officers - it's not just officers, it's the dispatchers, it's the wreckers, it's everyone who's exposed in this line of work to the tragedies that we do our duty with - to take that extra step for one another and learn what it is that our agencies and our organizations have to offer for ourselves, as well as our families," said Alvarado.

Alvarado said some local agencies offered peer counseling, and The Heart of Texas Region MHMR had "outstanding assistance" for officers.

"There are many, many people, and many in law enforcement, that are working quite a bit to try and assist and to grow the knowledge and to be able to help one another," said Alvarado.

Texas is one of the top four states for police suicides, according to Blue H.E.L.P.

"The means are right on our hip," said Alvarado.

The Chief says she continues to push, at the state, local, and national level, for more mental health funding and training, and believes education is the key to curbing these types of tragedies in law enforcement, and to getting officers to seek help before it's too late.

"The more education, the more trust we have in the system, so that it can reduce some of the stigma, would be a hope," said Alvarado.

According to research by The Ruderman Family Foundation, first responders have a higher suicide rate than the general population; some scholars say it's about 70-percent higher, especially since agencies and families aren't required to report suicides to the government.

"It's a huge number, and so (I push for) trying to receive better training, not only in dealing with the public and how do we assist the public, but how do we assist ourselves," said Alvarado.

And assist families.

In cases where suicide is involved, officers' families don't receive financial support and resources - like line of duty deaths do - even though job-related trauma may have been a contributing factor.

"When we think of PTSD, we think of veterans, but there's also many other professions, and law enforcement being one of them, where it's just not readily talked about," said Alvarado. "It goes back to the stigma, and there's a huge stigma with anyone who has a mental illness," said Alvarado.

'Copline,' the first national law enforcement officers hotline in the U.S. manned by retired law enforcement officers, offers 24-hour support specifically designed for police officers who need help: 1 - (800) COPLINE (267-5463).

McNamara said his agency was looking at initiating more programs for officers in need.

"We can always improve," he said.