Preventing police suicide: A police wife breaks the silence
In PoliceOne "First Person" essays, PoliceOne Members candidly share their own unique personal insights on issues confronting cops today, as well as opinions, observations, and advice on living life behind the thin blue line
By Trish Buchanan, PoliceOne Special Contributor
For 29 years I lived a fairy tale life. I was married to my best friend and husband, Paul. We began dating when we were 17 years old and were married at age 22. We had two wonderful sons — Jared and Benjamin — and a precious dog named Frosty. We had no money problems, no family issues. We didn't smoke, drink or gamble. We laughed and loved each other; we took family vacations and enjoyed each other's company. Life was great.
Then, on March 12, 2013, my fairy tale life ended. My husband of 34 years died by suicide.
Suicide. It's a terrible, ugly, and taboo word, especially when it happens to an LEO. How could this happen to someone like Paul? You may also be asking why I'm sharing this personal story with the world. My sons and I are not ashamed or embarrassed by Paul's story. It's a story that is real and can happen to the best LEOs.
Does the life I describe sound like someone who would take their own life?
It's time to break the silence.
Paul was an East Hartford Connecticut Police Officer (#208) for almost 24 years. He was a well-respected and dedicated officer. He was a friend to all. During his years of service he received a meritorious service citation, lifesaving citation, and many commendations. He was also awarded “East Hartford Police Officer of the Year” in 2008. He most of his career was in patrol, working midnights. He was the kind of police officer that you would want to be stopped by.
He made friends with the bad guys; they often asked for him. As with all LEOs, he saw the worst things in the world such as car accidents, drunk drivers, dead people, dead babies, murder/suicides, and even watched a teenager who was stabbed die in his arms. He also lost a fellow officer, Brian Aselton, who died in the line of duty.
When Paul started his career he had perfect health. Paul suffered from some depression and anxiety but nothing that could not be helped through his family practitioner with medication. He also suffered many health ailments incurred after many years on the job - hypertension, lower back problems, sleep apnea, etc.
During the fall of 2012, the job that Paul had inside the department as desk/fleet/scheduling/court officer was becoming too stressful. Paul reached out to administration by writing a letter about the position and how difficult the job was becoming as responsibilities were continually added. He asked for a change in his work schedule and said “...I am willing to work with anyone to make this position more reasonable.”
He asked “If this position can't be modified per my request I would like to be permitted to return to patrol for next year's bid which starts on February 2, 2013.”
No one responded. Without his knowledge, while away on vacation in September, his position was posted and shortly after Paul returned to midnight shift on patrol. Still, no one from administration spoke to him about the position and the stress he was feeling.
During the fall of 2012, I watched as my husband struggled with depression and anxiety. Paul needed help. Without knowing where to turn or what to do, he called Employee Assistance Program and made an appointment with a psychiatrist. He was given a meditation handbook and referred to a nurse practitioner who would handle his medication. This psychiatrist knew nothing about LEOs. Paul never went back.
Paul continued to struggle. He was sleeping more, losing weight, and beginning to feel like a failure. He felt ashamed; he was supposed to be this strong police officer and yet here he was struggling. He told me “I have everything a man dreams of, why do I feel this way?”
In December 2012/January 2013 he began to see a new psychiatrist and was actively taking medication. He was diagnosed with Panic Disorder/PTSD related to the job.
January 2013 - While working midnight shift, Paul responded to a chaotic scene, an apartment fire where babies were being thrown from the windows and people were jumping. He was taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation.
He told me, “It was like 9/11 — people and kids were everywhere screaming. I can't do this job anymore.”
February 2013: Paul took one month off from work. There were some good days where he “looked” OK. On other days, he talked about work and how stressed he was and that he couldn't do the job anymore and it was killing him inside. We talked about the possibility of retirement, disability, and quitting. Retirement was so close (July 2014) but yet so far away. He wouldn't let me take him to the hospital because he was embarrassed that people may know him there and he feared he would lose his job.
March 2013: A permanent position was made inside the department for Paul and he returned to work. On March 12, 2013 Paul died by suicide at the East Hartford Police Department.
Paul left two notes, one at the police department and one found at home. He said “...make my death an issue so you can get help for other people like me…. I wish I could tell people that every time I think of work I get stressed out and anxious but if I told them I was suicidal I would be out of a job.”
This is why my sons and I are on a mission. We need to help others and make changes in the way law enforcement looks at depression/anxiety/panic disorder/PTSD. The stress of the job is real and it exists. Suicide is not an act of cowardice but one of extreme stress and a measure of last resort to end the pain and suffering. One cannot “snap out of it” and the best way to stop suicide is to destroy the current culture where police officers cannot admit they are human.
Just because you can’t see it doesn't mean it's not there. There needs to be more training and peer support. Administration needs to understand the stressors that each officer faces. EAP didn't work for Paul.
I hope that you will help me fufill my husband's last wish, which was to make his death an issue and help others. Please take the time to view the personal video of Paul's story. My husband, who was this kind, caring, and loving person, truly bore the pain of those he protected and served.
The video can be viewed on YouTube “Breaking the Silence of Police Suicide.”
Please, also, take a few minutes to view the movie trailer for Code 9 Officer Needs Assistance.
It is a film that is being produced to help law enforcement officers survive the rigors of their stressful careers. It explores the darker side of law enforcement. It is powerful and real.
Let's work together to break the silence.
About the Author
If you, a loved one, a subordinate, or a colleague are experiencing problems like Officer Buchanan, help is available 24 hours per day at Safe Call Now 206 459 3020. Safe Call Now is not EAP. By Washington State law, information shared with Safe Call Now cannot be obtained by law enforcement agencies no matter where you call from.
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