Suicide prevention seminar challenges stigma of police officers seeking help

Police officers from around the state, including Groton City Police Sgt. Bruce Lowe, center, listen as Janice McCarthy, widow of Massachusetts State Police Officer Paul McCarthy, speaks about her husband's suicide.
Police officers from around the state, including Groton City Police Sgt. Bruce Lowe, center, listen as Janice McCarthy, widow of Massachusetts State Police Officer Paul McCarthy, speaks about her husband's suicide. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

New Britain - On the big screen in a conference room at Central Connecticut State University, a video shows a handful of cops sitting around a table in a counseling session. The topic: suicide.

Yeah, a lot of them have thought about it.

"You got the way out on your hip," one says.

Another officer, who was thwarted in his suicide attempt - and thankful for it - describes the decision.

"When you're plotting it," he says, "it's almost a relief because the bull (expletive) is gonna be over."

The video was one segment of an all-day conference to discuss police suicide prevention. Presented by the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement Inc., or CABLE, the seminar was in response to a rash of recent police suicides.

Statewide, four police officers committed suicide this spring, including Groton City Lt. Thomas Forbes, who killed himself in his office in June.

The conference was designed to challenge the stigma of seeking help, organizers said, and to suggest resources that agencies can use in addition to an Employee Assistance Provider, or EAP.

About 300 people attended the conference, a number that CABLE President Kenneth Edwards said was encouraging. Edwards, a former captain in the New London Police Department, is now an inspector with the Office of the Chief State's Attorney.

Edwards said during a break that he was particularly pleased by the number of command staff - the captains, deputy chiefs and chiefs - who showed up.

"These are the guys who can effect change," Edwards said.

Staff from Groton City and Town, New London, Norwich and Waterford police departments were in attendance. Three sergeants, a patrolman and a corporal from Groton City attended Wednesday's conference, according to Sgt. Bruce Lowe.

"It's a bit tough," Lowe said of the conference and about watching the video. "We're trying to learn and deal with it."

Some people talk about the incident, Lowe said, and others don't. Some "just focus on the job and (try) not to think about what happened."

"We're kind of muddling through," he said.

Lt. Jeff Nixon of the Waterford Police Department, who was scheduled to speak in the afternoon about ways that departments can make changes, said he was struck by a comment from a civilian in the same video.

In it, family and friends describe the behavior of an officer who eventually committed suicide. A one-time joker who would gladly tell funny stories from the job, one friend said, the officer over time started focusing on the blood and gore. His stories, told with the same verve, became disturbing rather than entertaining.

The friend said she told the officer his stories were too much, that they were just normal people who couldn't take it.

"Here's the scary part," Nixon said during a break. "We're normal people, too."

Nixon said the law enforcement community needs to take care of its own and recognize that behavioral health is as important as financial and physical health.

"It's a paradigm shift that's long overdue," said Nixon, who described police as "a normal person responding to an abnormal situation."

Janice McCarthy, whose Massachusetts State Trooper husband, Paul, committed suicide in 2006, took the audience through her husband's spiral after an on-the-job accident in 1993 led to post traumatic stress disorder.

"To see what you do on a daily basis and to deny it affects you," McCarthy said, "is really not rational."

McCarthy and others spoke of the cumulative stresses of the job that can become overwhelming with time.

"You don't go to the barbecues," McCarthy said. "You go to the barbecues where the grill blows up."

Police work regularly involves dead bodies, accidents, shootings and abused children, said John Violanti, the conference's keynote speaker. Add to that a pressure to do everything just right because of policies, protocols and scrutiny from the public and media.

Violanti is a research professor in the department of Social and Preventive Medicine, School of Public Health and Health Professions at SUNY Buffalo and was a Trooper with New York State Police for 23 years.

"You almost have to be a practicing attorney to do your job right," Violanti said, adding that police also "have to survive the psychological harm this job can do to you over 20 to 25 years."

Norwich detective Corey Poore said the pressure "changes on a regular basis."

"It doesn't seem like the police can do anything right anymore," Poore said, adding that police are "constantly scrutinized - more so than in the past."

Norwich and other police departments in the region have experienced Crisis Intervention Teams and peer counseling, Poore and Norwich Lt. Chris Ferace said. There, and in other departments, the stigma about seeking help doesn't exist the way it did years ago.

"I've been to counseling," said Lt. Todd Bergeson of the New London Police Department. "It was the best thing I ever did."

It was divorce-related rather than police-related, said Bergeson, but the talks spilled over into talks about the job. Bergeson said he's learned how to leave work behind at the end of a shift and said it's been beneficial mentally and physically.

"As soon as I leave (work)," he said, "it's a different life."

k.crompton@theday.com

Janice McCarthy, standing in front of a photo of her husband, Massachusetts State Police Officer Paul McCarthy, speaks to police officers from around the state about her husband's 2006 suicide during a symposium Wednesday on police suicide prevention at Central Connecticut State University.
Janice McCarthy, standing in front of a photo of her husband, Massachusetts State Police Officer Paul McCarthy, speaks to police officers from around the state about her husband's 2006 suicide during a symposium Wednesday on police suicide prevention at Central Connecticut State University. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo
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