A Culture of Silence: Mental illness in the law enforcement community

Culture of Silence

CENTRAL TEXAS - Stereotypes and stigmas associated with mental illness in the law enforcement community have historically created a culture that too often ignores the stress and mental anguish officer’s face.

The statistics related to mental illness and law enforcement suicides are staggering.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

  • 1 in 5 individuals in the United States will face a mental health condition this year.
  • Almost 1 in 4 police officers has thoughts of suicide at some point in their life.
  •  7 to 19 percent of police officers have symptoms of PTSD, compared to 3.5 percent among the general public.
  • More police die by suicide than by homicide: the number of police suicides is 2.3 times that of homicides.

In 2014, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) published “Breaking the Silence on Law enforcement Suicides”.

In the report, the then IACP President Craig Steckler wrote:

“But our collective silence only compounds the problem. By ignoring the issue, we implicitly promote the unqualified expectation that police must, without question, be brave, steadfast, and resilient. Our refusal to speak openly about the issue perpetuates the stigma many officers hold about mental health issues—the stigma that depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide are signs of weakness and failure, not cries for help.”

The suicide of Sgt. Craig Hutchinson brought light to the harsh realities associated with mental health in law enforcement. The investigation revealed that Hutchinson had a history of depression and anxiety.

But no one knew.

Following Sgt. Hutchinson’s suicide, Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton was questioned about how Travis County plans to address officer suicides and mental health.

Hamilton’s response: “We are going to address that at Travis County,” he said. “I don’t know what we are going to do. But we are going to address that issue.”

Was Sheriff Greg Hamilton suggesting that Travis County had no mental health support services for their officers?

Not exactly.

In November 2015, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office hired its first staff psychologist, Dr. Cressida Kwolek.

With a caseload of nearly 1600, Dr. Kwolek has her work cut out for her, but she feels they are making steps in the right direction.

“That’s why I was hired, is that there is an awareness in this agency that keeping officers healthy psychologically is very important”, said Dr. Kwolek.

The Sheriff’s office will begin providing mental health training to cadets in the academy next year, and they are currently exploring options to improve the mental health support of its officers.

Prior to hiring Dr. Kwolek, internal mental health support services were limited in Travis County.

Retired Detective Chris Orton became dedicated to making a change within Travis County. In 2006, Orton was diagnosed with PTSD from 19 years of work related stress.

“Nobody cared when I was sick, nobody helped me, I did everything on my own”, said Orton.

In 2011, after nearly 5 years of struggling with his own mental illness, Orton was given an opportunity to tell his story during a four-hour class on PTSD once a week for 27 weeks.

The class created an environment that allowed fellow officers to relate to Orton’s experience. Officers in every class reached out for help.

Orton immediately realized how many desperately needed support.

Orton began going to PTSD, suicide awareness, and peer support training and was shortly thereafter approved to begin teaching classes on peer support and mental health at Travis County.

While attending a training on PTSD, Orton was introduced to a form of psychotherapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR.

EMDR changed his life and would become a resource for Orton to offer many others.

Over the next 4 years, Orton taught classes at Travis County, attended hundreds of hours of training, became a Stephen Minister, and developed a network of therapists whom he has referred to countless officers in need of help.

In June 2015, Orton was told he could no longer teach per his Captain’s orders.

Orton stated, “I’ve never been bullied in my life that I know of, and here I am in my 50’s and I’m being bullied for trying to help people and create something that people want.”

Nearly a year later, Sergeant Craig Hutchinson committed suicide.

Then this past October, after 29 years with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and three months after his friend Sgt. Craig Hutchinson committed suicide, Detective Chris Orton retired.

Although retired, Orton actively teaches peer support and mental health at law enforcement training sessions around the country and he continues to receive phone calls from officers in desperate need of help.

See resources on how to get help below:

Improving Motivation and Productivity of Police Officers

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Institute

Breaking the Silence on Law Enforcement Suicides

National Alliance on Mental Health

(© 2016 KVUE)


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