How this police department is fighting for its officers' mental health after suicides

For at least the past three years, more police officers across the nation have died by suicide than in the line of duty.
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By Hannah Rappleye and Emily R. Siegel

FAIRFAX, Va. — One night in 2006, rain fell as Lt. Ed Rediske slumped in a chair in his backyard, a gun balanced on his knees. It was easier for him to imagine ending his life than it was to ask for help.

"I didn't feel like I could cope," he recalls. "I wanted to stop feeling like that."

Weeks earlier, an armed man had stormed his district station at the Fairfax County Police Department and killed two officers. One of them, Detective Vicky Armel, was a friend.

As the department reeled, a supervisor told Rediske that he was partly to blame, the officer says. Weeks before, Rediske had exchanged harsh words with the shooter before a tense interrogation.

The guilt he felt, no matter how misplaced, was crushing.

"I felt that there was no way I could go on," Rediske said. "I was positive there was no way I could go back to work. I had no clue how I would face anybody."

Rediske did go back to work, but the months and years ahead did not get any easier.

He is not alone. For at least the past three years, more police officers across the nation have died by suicide than in the line of duty. No federal agency tracks the numbers, but according to Blue H.E.L.P, a nonprofit group focused on mental health and law enforcement, at least 167 police officers took their lives last year. So far this year, 142 have died by suicide.

"I think probably the biggest issue is finding a way to get officers who are feeling troubled to come forward," said John Violanti, a professor at the University of Buffalo and an expert on police stress. "You couple that issue with our societal stigma of mental illness, that if you're mentally ill you're defective in some way. You're different."

In Memoriam

The stigma is particularly ingrained in the nation's police departments, and it often keeps officers from seeking professional help for common, treatable mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. While police officers work a high-stress job with constant, chronic exposure to trauma, many departments have been slow to expand access to mental health resources, and to avoid polices that feel punitive, such as automatically seizing an officer's gun and badge, or shunting them away to desk duty if they ask for help.

"I didn't want to ask for help," Rediske said. "I didn't feel that I could. It was that stigma and that, you know: 'Suck it up. Don't worry about that.' That's been the mantra for so long in this profession. If you have a problem or you can't deal with something, that's because you shouldn't be doing this job. You can't hack it."

It was 2017 when Fairfax County Police Chief Ed Roessler stood alone at a podium during roll call, searching for the right words. Several of the department's 1,400 uniformed officers had died by suicide, and the rank and file wanted to know what he was planning to do about it.

"I realized I was giving a corporate answer suicide after suicide, death after death," Roessler said. "And in the meantime, I'm afraid of the stigma because I'm getting myself help. And I wasn't sharing it with anybody."

At the time, he was working with a therapist to cope with mental health conditions, brought on by decades of policing.

In Memoriam

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"The nature of our calling is that we see the worst of what some human could do to someone else," he said. "That is something, as life happens to you, that will come and catch you."

Roessler reached out to the man he thought could help him find the answers — Jaysyn Carson, director of incident support services for the Fairfax County Police Department, who works closely with police officers and law enforcement agencies that suffer traumatic incidents.

"What we've learned is that trauma is not just about what's happened to them in their career," Carson said. "A lot of times, it has to do with things they've been exposed to throughout their entire life."

Calling depression, anxiety and PTSD "occupational diseases" for public safety officials, Carson said the priority is to get officers treatment — and keep them at work.

"If you take someone's badge and gun you take their dignity, you take their sense of purpose and their sense of belonging to a culture," Carson said. "It's like stripping them of their identity."

The team identified a key policy change: not automatically taking away a police officer's badge and gun, and not automatically taking an officer off duty, if they ask for help. Instead, officers who seek treatment, or who are identified by staff as in need of support, undergo thoughtful, thorough evaluations before any action is taken.

They also try not to move the officer to a new department, unless his current position exposes him to consistent, repeated trauma or his schedule conflicts with treatment.

"Creating that isolation and knowing that we have so many self-medicating with alcohol, you're basically nailing the coffin shut," Carson said. "And you're creating the possibility of a suicide to happen. People need to interact with people. They need to have a sense of belonging."

"We want them to be part of something," he added. "We don't want to be the ones that create the isolation and send them home and let them sit at home and fester and wonder."

Like Rediske, 1st Lt. Mark Dale knows what that feels like.

In Memoriam

In 2006, Dale rushed to the Fairfax district station after hearing reports of an active shooter on the radio. He and another officer managed to take down the shooter in the parking lot. Although he stopped the man from taking more lives, Dale was stripped of his gun and badge, in accordance with protocol, and forced to stay home for 30 days. He also was not allowed to wear his uniform to the officers' funerals.

Like so many who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, Dale felt numb. Hypervigilant. Anxious. It wasn't until six or seven months later that he finally saw a psychologist.

Using his hard-earned experience, Dale now works alongside Carson to help other officers.

"I think about it every single day," he said. "There has never been a day I haven't thought about it at least once or multiple times. It's just part of me, and I get it and I've accepted that."

Fairfax now has two full-time psychologists and a team of clinicians on staff, so officers don't have to pay out of pocket for treatment. Violent and traumatic events are documented. Officers also receive mandatory one-on-one sessions with clinicians. If an officer chooses not to speak about their personal life, the clinician will offer training on how to cope with the stresses of the job. For those officers with consistent trauma exposures, such as homicide detectives, these checks are annual. Otherwise they line up with mandatory physicals, which become more frequent as the officer ages.

"This is a police family concept," Chief Roessler said. "We want to get you well and back to work."

"We do everything we can as trained law enforcement professionals to save lives in the community," he added. "We need to do the same for our own people."

For Rediske, the changes have made a difference.

In Memoriam

In 2017, as the department began to reform, Carson and other officers noticed Rediske was suffering.

By this time, he had been diagnosed with PTSD by two different doctors. He applied for medical retirement, but because his PTSD was not caused by physical injuries, he did not qualify for worker's compensation.

"From then on, it was just, it was downhill," he said.

At least eight states, including Texas and Florida, have implemented bills that allow first responders to file worker's compensation claims for PTSD. They include the presumption that if a first responder receives a PTSD diagnosis from a licensed psychologist, then it will be presumed an occupational disease suffered in the line of duty. A similar bill has been proposed in Virginia.

Carson intervened and worked to get Rediske into treatment. He started seeing one of the psychologists working with the department and was transferred to the police academy for a few months while he got help.

That therapist diagnosed him with PTSD, for a third time. While Rediske knows the road to recovery is long, he can see the difference.

"If I can get just one other officer who's felt or feeling the way that I've felt to come forward and say: 'You know what? I need a hand,'" Rediske said. "That's all it is. You just have to say, 'I need a hand.' And talk to someone."

"Because you can get better," he added. "And if you get help, you will get better."

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

Jaime Longoria contributed.