You see on Monday July 7th, last summer, I came home from work to find he had made the choice to take his own life.
People, experts, keep telling me that no one will listen to me unless I’m uplifting and optimistic. As you can imagine it’s hard to put a positive spin on a suicide. What I bring to the table instead are lessons learned – what went wrong, what isn’t working, what’s missing and what we can do better. There are dozens of wonderful success stories being told, stories of overcoming and triumphs but I’m asking you today not to dismiss or turn away from the unsuccessful stories. These are the stories with real life lessons. My daughter recently said to me – it’s the questions you get wrong on a test that you never forget. So let’s never forget our lost hero’s and in their memories let’s learn from their stories and never repeat what we could have done to change the ending.
What I’d like to talk about today is his struggle with Post Traumatic Stress, how the stigma of mental illness in the context of the Police world effected him and how going forward there must be more done to change police culture and to make those thus far unaffected realize this is their fight too.
My husband joined the Toronto Police Service in 1990. In 1994, on a warm September night he was patrolling on night shift. It was a Wednesday and fairly quiet. A call came over the radio involving a traffic car following a stolen car southbound on Markham Road. The pursuit car was giving dispatch the normal information – rate of speed, road conditions etc. My husband advised the dispatcher he was in the area and started heading over. He was going eastbound on Eglinton Avenue ~ a moment or two later the pursuit car went silent. As my husband pulled up on Markham Road making the northbound turn onto Markham he encountered a cloud of dust and the unmistakeable tell tale signs of a car accident. You know debris on the road, a light standard down – like that. Out of the corner of his eye he saw something mostly white and in the moment it took to slam on the brakes and jump from his car he realized that this was a police car. He would later say it looked more like a love seat in size than the normal large crown Victoria’s they drove. Needless to say Constable John Knight didn’t survive the accident, in fact he was dead before the car came to rest. it would later be discovered that he’d hit a light standard so hard it had virtually pulverized it into dust before coming to a stop against a bridge abutment. I’ll spare you the details of what he saw but i could tell you them – each and every one of them as if i were there myself because he told me the story so many times, one horrifying detail after another.
The driver of that car was an officer he’d know since he first started. They worked the same platoon, patrolling the same area. Back then there was no critical incident debriefing – the closest thing would be the end of shift drinking that occurred before they went on days off.
Even though i wasn’t present at the car wreck and we didn’t know it at the time, this incident would change the course of our lives over the next 20 years. But it wasn’t this incident alone, in my husbands case it was many calls over many years building up over time. it was also very subtle ~ when people ask me about it I can only best describe it as living with someone for a long time who is on a diet. Not some crash diet but the kind of healthy diet where you lose maybe a half pound a week. You can see this person every day and not really notice the change, then one day you see a picture or something and all of a sudden it hits you – how different this person now is.
Over the next fifteen years there would be many calls, far too many calls. Some so grisly you probably wouldn’t believe me ~ others just the run of the mill homicides or rapes. Sounds cold doesn’t it, calling a homicide run of the mill but that’s a first responders lot, they see so much of the depravity humans are capable of that sometimes a straight up homicide, like a shooting or stabbing can seem oddly standard or even regular.
Again, i won’t bore you with all the unspeakable details. I don’t even need to tell you his symptoms because i now know he was a textbook case. There are many brave people now sharing their stories, including the details of how their lives changed, the tell tale signs of Post Traumatic Stress, even the many ways first responders hide it or aren’t even aware they are suffering.
Today, i’d rather focus on the unique Police culture that makes it so very difficult to overcome this trauma. I say police because that’s what i know but i’m very aware that it isn’t just police, it’s fire, ambulance, the military and more. So when i say police feel free to substitute the agency of your choice.
So Police culture – One definition of culture is that it is “a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization”.
And it’s been getting some bad press lately but as with everything there is good and bad. The good part of police culture is knowing that you are part of a team, a family if you will. You could hardly expect an officer to head out to patrol or respond to calls in the world I’ve just described without knowing that every other officer out there has your back. That with just a few words over your radio every available car will come, they will drop whatever they are doing and race to your side. Every car in the area, every car in the division, every car in the district even every car in this large city if you need them. How powerful it that. You speak your own language, understand the inside jokes, even get to being able to spot another cop when you don’t even know them. Something about the way they carry themselves, talk – whatever you want to call it, it’s a culture unique to each agency. And with the culture comes a code, the blue line it’s often called – it must be adhered to – by all – no exceptions.
Regrettably, there’s another side to this culture and code. And it becomes ugly when it comes to matters of mental health. You see, i think, and this is only my opinion, but i think that it’s very important for the group, this particular group of people, as a whole to feel strong. Both physically and mentally, because you are relying on that strength to be what is drawn upon when you need them. So any perception of weakness seems intolerable – I mean would you want to rely on someone who is perhaps preoccupied with troubled thoughts. Probably not any more than you would want a partner with a broken arm, someone physically unable to assist you in a fight. The difference is that for someone with a physical injury, accommodations are made. the injured officer remains in a protected environment – like inside the station on light duties until they are again up to full speed.
But the same can not be said for someone with a mental injury. We know, through science and experience that these injuries can be repaired and the injured party recuperated enough to be a vital and integral part of the team once again. All they need is time and professional help just like that broken arm. Historically, they aren’t given the chance. This same culture that prizes the strong, ostracizes the debilitated. This is the belief system that has to change. It’s not only deplorable – it’s just wrong. It’s outdated thinking that never really was based on reality or science or anything other than fear.
My husband was begging for that help. Thirteen months before he took his own life he was in a closed door meeting with his superintendent and a staff sergeant. It was in this meeting that he opened up to his superiors about the years of anguish he had been suffering, the Post Traumatic Stress, the severe depression and intense anxiety. He hoped they would understand and make accommodations for him. Instead he was emasculated, verbally abused, taunted, insulted, maligned and eventually brought to tears. Over the course of the next thirteen months he would continue to be bullied, provoked, tormented, and intimidated to the point of having serious panic attacks at work resulting in more and more time taken off sick.
Each time he returned to work he would be given a new job function – always one he had no previous experience with, no training for and no help offered. This would eventually result in a tremendous increase in his anxiety levels and the circle would continue.
He was scheduled to return to work on Wednesday July 9th, 2014 but on that Monday he left me a note saying “he could not face returning to work in that environment”. He had been trying for months to be moved to another unit but was always denied.
This is the reality of Police culture today and years past. I know it is not everyone’s reality. Some Police Services and other agencies are headed by an enlightened few. Men and women who know better and do better. Who recognize and injury as just that – an injury – something that with proper treatment can be healed. Regrettably, this number is so small i hesitate to call it a minority – they are so few and far between it probably wouldn’t even show up on a pie chart.
So while we are all now well aware of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, groups like Tema have done a wonderful job of bringing this issue to the forefront, what still lies before us is the daunting task of changing that ingrained belief that a mental illness somehow makes you less – less of a person, less entitled to the same treatment a physical illness would be given.
I know this won’t be easy – change never is especially when those who most need to change will fight tooth and nail not to change. But it can be done, it will be done because it has to be done. Not changing will cost more lives, figuratively and literally. Not changing is not an option.
I will continue to speak up, for my husband and for the many others still suffering at the hands of the few cruel and calculating individuals to heartless to see the damage they are inflicting.
There is another group that needs to change. The group I am referring to is the group of people who stand by idly, either unaffected or afraid to stand up. Post Traumatic Stress is sneaky, as far as i know there is no scientific way to determine who will suffer from it. So it seems to me that any reasonable person would want to improve things for those who suffer from mental illness in these roles. Because as the saying goes “there but for the grace of God, go I” it could happen to you, your partner or anyone you know. It’s not like people always say about crime – I always thought it happened to other people, not me. So I beg you – stand up, speak up, fight for better treatment, better education and if, God forbid, it happens to you or someone you know they will only have to confront the injury not the stigma.
I would like to end with a quote from the Dali Lama. It speaks to me directly about the culture first responders face and that, particularly in my husbands case, doing nothing would have been better than the treatment he experienced.
The quote is …
Our primary purpose is to help others, and if we can’t help them at least don’t hurt them.
thank you for listening.