It’s been about 17 years since I first experienced the painful effects of a friend’s suicide. It was during my last semester in college. I was lucky to have had a tight-knit group of Chicago south-siders who went through grammar and high school together and then caravanned to college. So when our friend committed suicide in the basement of an off-campus house a few months before graduation, we were dumbfounded, numb, guilt-ridden and heartbroken that we didn’t know better or do something to prevent it.
This same, heart-wrenching emotional pain surfaced last Thursday when we lost allegedly to suicide another friend from our high school-to-college group. He was a first responder, working as a Chicago police officer. I have lost touch over the years with some of my old neighborhood friends — keeping up to date mainly through Facebook. But I knew him well throughout my formitive years: from prom to college graduation. He was quick with a joke and had a seriously infectious laugh. He had a kind heart. He loved his friends and family, and they loved him.
It was no surprise he became a police officer; as with most of us from the south side, working for the city was a family business. Whether for streets and sanitation, fire, or police, we all were taught to value serving the people of Chicago through years of family tradition.
I can’t imagine the stress Chicago police officers and other first responders face every day. Whether it’s on the streets of Chicago, with a murder rate equal to a war zone, or a school house in Sandy Hook, Conn., responders continually see the worst of society and experience traumatic events.
These events affect the emotional health of all first responders, whether police, fire or EMS — no matter how thick their skin. While I have no idea what caused the suicide of our friend last week, studies have shown that responders especially are prone to PTSD and other forms of depression. The day-to-day trauma takes its toll. It would be ignorant to assume it does not.
As a result, we all — from chiefs to the rank-and-file to loved ones — need to take special care of the emotional health of this nation’s first responders. I am not an expert. But there are several resources available for prevention and intervention.
For those in public-safety leadership, it is important we start to talk even more openly about the emotional health of responders. Let’s not let one more person become a victim of the job. Part of that process is discussing incidents with staff and checking in with each person involved. Do it daily or after major incidents. Reach out. Ask questions.
To my friends and to the family of the lost, to first responders having a bad day, to those without hope, I leave you with this prayer:
May you see God's light on the path ahead
When the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear,
Even in your hour of sorrow,
The gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard may hardness
Never turn your heart to stone,
May you always remember
when the shadows fall —
You do not walk alone.
— an Irish prayer