By Eric Weaver
I spent nearly all of my adult life in law enforcement and early on, my understanding of mental illness was limited. It was based on the two days of training I received in the academy combined with my street experiences of responding to literally thousands of calls of individuals who were suicidal or in some kind of crisis. Like most people, I had a very simplistic view of mental illness.
My view of mental illness changed drastically in 1995. At this time in my career I had been a sergeant for three years and was involved in all of the typical police duties. I was an Entry Team and Sniper supervisor on our SWAT team, and supervised my own proactive unit of officers working a high drug and crime area. I had been a competitive bodybuilder, and had a reputation of being a very aggressive and no nonsense police sergeant. However it was in the fall of that year, at the age of 32, that I first told my wife at the time that I couldn’t stop thinking of killing myself. Every single day I would get up, and every single day I would think about how I was going to take my own life.
When I first told her she was shocked, and she told me I really needed to go talk with someone. I agreed, but only under the condition she would never tell anyone. After all, I had a reputation to maintain. I could never allow anyone to know that under my very tough exterior I was emotionally falling apart.
Shortly thereafter I started to see a psychologist on a regular basis. As we met, we talked about anything and everything, from issues I had as a child to my experiences in the police department. Over the following months, my issues with depression and suicide became increasingly more difficult, when in the spring of 1996, I found myself hospitalized for the first time in a psychiatric hospital. Being admitted into such a place didn’t come easy. With support from family, though, I knew it was either hospitalization or suicide; there were no other options.
That was the first of five hospitalizations that summer, each stay longer than the one previous, ranging from one week to over a month. During that summer, I had been diagnosed with major depression and continued to struggles with suicidal thoughts. After months of unsuccessful trial and error with medication, I began electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). I have subsequently been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
While I was out of work for about six months, only six of the 700 officers in the department knew where I was. My captain, deputy chief, and four friends were incredibly supportive and with approval from all of my doctors, I came back to full duty in the fall of 1996. I worked hard for the next year and a half, until my severe suicidal thoughts returned and I found myself hospitalized for a sixth time in the summer of 1998. Again, with the support of my department and my doctors, I returned back to work full duty a few months later.
My world changed again in 2001, however, when an officer whom I had worked alongside died by suicide. Although he and I were not particularly close, the impact his death had on me was profound, especially given my own history of suicide and depression. I felt right then that I was not kept alive from suicide simply to keep my story to myself. I requested a few minutes on the agenda at a command staff meeting, and I proceeded to share my story of mental illness and suicide with a very taken aback and surprised group of commanding officers. With the exception of my captain and chief, this was the first time any of them heard that I had been in a psychiatric hospital. After sharing my story with them, I asked permission to put together some kind of in-service training where I could not only share my story with the department, but also provide information and educate my fellow officers on the issues of mental health, stress, suicide and recovery.
I’ll never forget one well-meaning captain who said, “Eric, it is all well and noble and everything that you want to tell your story and help other officers. But Eric, let’s be realistic, you can’t get up in front of 700 of your fellow officers and tell them that you were in a psychiatric hospital six times and have a mental illness.” Not being sure where he was going with this statement, I asked him why I shouldn’t do what I felt I was being led to do. The captain hastily replied, “Eric, what would people think?” I immediately told him that was the problem. We are often so concerned about what a bunch of strangers and people we work with think of us, that we are willing to throw away our families, our relationships, and sometimes our very lives, because we don’t want the people we see eight hours a day to think badly of us. I then explained to him that if my fellow officers didn’t like me after the last 16 years they weren’t ever going to, and what I want to do is not about me but about them. With the command staff’s support, I was allowed to teach a three hour in-service program that eventually reached our entire department.
It wasn’t until I actually started speaking about mental illness in law enforcement that I realized what an overwhelming issue it actually is. The regrettably high rates of suicide, alcoholism, domestic violence, and posttraumatic stress among law enforcement officers are all too real. Over the years I have had countless officers and their spouses contact me for guidance on how to deal with the issues that have come up in my classes.
One does not need to be a police officer for very long to know we have a very difficult job that can take a tremendous toll on us. We must be able to recognize that not all wounds are visible. We must be able to recognize emotional trauma in ourselves and others and we must tend to it despite our fear and embarrassment. Officers are only people. People that are asked to do a very tough job, but people nonetheless.
If you or a loved one are at risk of suicide please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255), a 24-hour resource.
Eric Weaver is a highly decorated retired sergeant with the Rochester, N.Y., Police Department (RPD), where he served for 20 years. While with the RPD, he served in numerous positions, including patrol assignments, the Tactical Unit, the SWAT team, and Internal Affairs. Eric’s last assignment was as mental health coordinator and he was the creator, developer and commanding officer of the Emotionally Disturbed Persons Response Team (EDPRT). Eric has served as a consultant in the creation, development, training and implementation of similar teams across New York state. Eric created a seminar, “Emotional Safety and Survival,” a course on mental health, cumulative stress, stigma, depression and suicide prevention and awareness to over 9,000 first responders in New York and around the country. This seminar earned Eric the Mental Health Association of NYS Award for Program Excellence in 2006. Eric has worked several years as a pastor and now has his own mental health and suicide prevention training and education company called Overcoming The Darkness. He is a past board member and active in NAMI Rochester.