DENVER - Law enforcement suicides are in the spotlight again after two metro-area officers took their own lives in the past week. Experts say it is alarming that first responders are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
Steve Flexser, a volunteer firefighter, stood at attention to salute his colleague as his procession passed him in the snow Wednesday
"I'm here to pay my respects," Flexser said, saying one of his fellow first responders lost his battle with depression.
For the third straight year, police suicides have risen. Blue H.E.L.P. says there were more than 160 police suicides in 2018, which is nearly triple the rate of officers shot and killed in the line of duty.
"That's incredibly scary. That highlights the importance for this conversation. We need to make sure we are having this conversation in a way that doesn't turn into white noise. We have to have this conversation in a way that people are receptive to, and what we are seeing is the best way to have that conversation is to have the most respected officers in their agency coming forward, talking openly and being more open about what it looks like if you do say something," said Dr. Sara Metz.
Metz started Code 4 Counseling to help first responders. She says many agencies are finding ways to encourage officers to get mental health help and at the same time, reassuring officers that they won't lose their jobs.
Metz said it's important to normalize scary symptoms that people do not like to talk about.
"It's OK to have considered suicide. It's OK to have had suicidal thoughts. We're going to help you not have the experience, but we are still going to love you, respect you, still absolutely going to believe you can keep us and our community safe. When people experience suicidal thoughts, it's not that they want to die, but they want the pain to go away. What we want is for them to know there are a lot of other options," Metz said.
She said officers are often worried about risking their job if they ask for help.
"This is a calling for them. I can't tell you how many cops I walk to that say, 'This is all I know how to do, all I've ever wanted to do.' If they feel like they are risking that by asking for help, they won't do it," Metz said.
She said agencies should be very clear that they have resources available if someone is in need of help. Metz said resources include peer support, psychological services and offering time "offline" to ensure officers get the help they need.
"That doesn't mean your job is at risk. We need agencies to say that," Metz said.
She said her husband, Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz, sent an email to his department after recent suicides in the Denver metro area.
"The email talked about if you need help, ask for help. Your job is not at risk. We have peer support, counseling services. Every chief and every sheriff needs to say that to their agencies. They have to know if they ask for help, they will be supported. People need to hear that so they don't feel like they're the only ones," Sara Metz said.
The stress and trauma officers experience every day weighs on them.
"When you go through a lot of trauma, it can be overwhelming. And people who are overwhelmed sometimes think about suicide. We have officers who have gone through that and talk about it and say, 'Yes, I was suicidal and I'm OK now and this is what worked for me.'"
Officers don't often like to ask for help, but help is available.
"There are phone numbers, numbers to text, call a friend, call me, I don't care. Sometimes just talking about it, getting it out of your head and off your chest helps a lot," Flexser said.
Dr. Metz added, "The cool thing is you call any cop and say, 'I need help.' They will drop everything and come sit with you through that. I tell them all the time if you are in the dark, I will come sit with you in the dark. That's part of this job. It's a calling for them, a calling for me."
If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or depression, the following resources are available:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255): Speak with someone who will provide free and confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To learn how to help someone in crisis, call the same number.
Colorado Crisis Services Hotline (1-844-493-8255): If you are in crisis or need help dealing with one, call 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255 to speak to a trained professional. When calling Colorado Crisis Services, you will be connected to a crisis counselor or trained professional with a master’s or doctoral degree.
The Trevor Project (1-866-488-7386): A 24/7 resource for LGBT youth struggling with a crisis or suicidal thoughts. The line is staffed by trained counselors.
Colorado Crisis Services Walk-In Locations: Walk-in crisis service centers are open 24/7, and offer confidential, in-person crisis support, information and referrals to anyone in need.
Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline: (1-844-264-5437): The best resource for readers to report suspected child abuse and neglect.
The number serves as a direct, immediate and efficient route to all Colorado’s 64 counties and two tribal nations, which are responsible for accepting and responding to child abuse and neglect concerns. All callers are able to speak with a call-taker 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.