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Police officers are at higher risk for suicide than rest of population. Here’s how they can get help

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Sabas Flores III

This story is brought to you by Grand Peaks Medical and Dental, a multi-specialty, nonprofit, community health center in St. Anthony and Rexburg.

April Griffiths Thomas will never forget Aug. 18, 2015.

That’s the day her husband died by suicide. Sabas Flores III was 41 years old and left behind three kids from a previous marriage.

“It was rough – that’s the understatement of the century,” said Thomas, who is now remarried. “But we got through it, and I truly believe talking about it might help someone else.”

Flores had been an officer with the Idaho Falls Police Department since 2001 and was a member of the department’s SWAT team trained in negotiations.

Before Flores’ passing, he’d taken part in a number of cases involving gruesome and traumatic deaths.

“There’s a stigma with police officers. They’re expected to deal with the kinds of things they do, bury it deep down and go onto the next call,” Thomas said. “There’s no dealing with the long-term ramifications of what you just saw.”

Flores is far from being alone. The No. 1 killer of law enforcement officers is suicide, according to National Alliance on Mental Health. Nearly every year, more police officers die by suicide than in the line of duty.

In 2018, at least 159 officers took their own lives nationwide, according to Blue H.E.L.P., a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization run by active and retired police officers. That number may be even larger, since the federal government doesn’t mandate the reporting of officer suicides.

It’s a widespread problem and one desperate for answers.

Joe Filicetti is a Boise-based attorney who has spent the bulk of his career defending police officers with the Fraternal Order of Police, an organization consisting of sworn law enforcement officers in the United States.

Filicetti says lately, he’s been talking officers out of suicide two to three times a week, he said.

“They don’t want to admit they have problems,” Filicetti said. “That’s just the culture. A warrior doesn’t show weakness.”

There is help

Less than 10 percent of law enforcement agencies have suicide prevention programs, according to Blue H.E.L.P. Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have a specific suicide prevention program, Sgt. Jeff Edwards said, but it does have an employee assistance program that offers counseling.

Idaho Falls Police Department also participates in the employee assistance program and has a handful of other resources, said Jessica Clements, the department’s public information officer.

Idaho Falls police established a team in 2016 that consists of representatives from across the department, such as record clerks, dispatchers, and other officers. This team has special training, and officers are able to talk to someone who is a peer rather than a professional counselor.

Courtesy photo

In addition, some counselors in the area take time to research the law enforcement population and go on ride-alongs with police. Those same counselors are the professionals who are usually called when critical incident debriefing occurs, Clements said. The debriefing usually happens after a high-stress event, so officers can talk to their colleagues about what they saw.

Trained counselors also come by throughout the year, Clements said. Officers can sign up to talk to the professionals at no cost to them.

“That’s not an area we should neglect,” Clements said. “They aren’t unaffected by (their job). It can be draining and it can take a toll. We want officers to be their best selves so they can serve their community, but also for themselves and their loved ones.”

However, some mental health experts say officers might not seek help because of the stigma behind it or the fear of losing their job.

That’s why it’s so important to have departments who are like a family, Clements said, because officers check up on each other to make sure they are OK.

However, Filicetti and Thomas hope to continue to see even more progress with mental health in police agencies.

A variety of factors contribute to why officer suicides are higher than the public, such as alcohol use disorders, depression and divorce, Filicetti said. However, those issues might be part of a bigger problem: post-traumatic stress disorder.

The truth, Filicetti said, is that a law enforcement career is a breeding ground for PTSD. These men and women have long hours, fatigue, potential health issues and trauma.

Law enforcement agencies need to address their officer’s mental health head-on, Filicetti and Thomas said.

Telling officers to get help isn’t enough, Thomas explains, because she knows it firsthand. Her husband was put on administrative leave roughly three months before he died by suicide and was only off the job for approximately 10 days before he was considered “fit for duty.”

“He knew exactly what to tell the evaluator. These guys deal with mental health every day and they know what to say to make people think they are OK,” Thomas said.

Courtesy photo

Thomas is hopeful agencies will start to have officers attend regular therapy sessions with a counselor, or at best, attend an annual therapy session with a mental health professional trained in PTSD and trauma. Annual physicals and dental check-ups are commonplace, so these type of appointments shouldn’t be unusual in police work, said Thomas.

“Police officers are the garbage men of society. PTSD is the result of continued stress again and again. You are on high alert all the time. At some point, you have to come down,” Filicetti said.

Thomas agrees and is hopeful that sharing her story will not just get law enforcement officers talking, but will get the public discussing suicide prevention and mental health. Although her husband didn’t get the needed help that might have saved him, she’s hopeful others will understand there is help and healing available.

“Sabas didn’t die on duty … didn’t die protecting and serving … but he kind of did,” Thomas said. “All of his demons accumulated. He didn’t get the help he needed and he took his own life. Everything that happened was the product of his job. I think we need to be talking about this, and awareness needs to start coming from other officers — maybe if someone started saying they need help, others would follow suit.”