Texas first responders say they won't be silent when co-workers die by suicide
One of the biggest threats to the lives of first responders is trying to live with the things they see people do to each other
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
FORT WORTH, Texas — The first thing the two police officers saw when they walked into the room was a woman lying at the feet of a man holding a gun.
The gun was pointed at the ground and despite multiple orders to do so, he would not drop it, said Luis Castillo, a retired patrol officer.
A girl, who looked to be between 10 and 12, knelt at the man’s feet and appeared to be comforting the woman, Castillo said.
“I came close to shooting her and her father,” Castillo said. “It’s one of the things that haunts me to this day.”
Castillo, who lives in Arlington and is now 66, retired from his police duties in Laredo in 1987 after serving nine years, saying that after two close brushes with death, he believed he had used up all of his luck. Castillo also worked for years supervising civilian security personnel for the Fort Worth school district. He’s receiving counseling to help him process things that continue to trouble him.
“I still suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” Castillo said.
Those pressures have grown to the point that one of the biggest threats to the lives of first responders is trying to live with the things they see people do to each other. Increasingly for first responders, suicide is the tragic result of witnessing things no one wants to see, according to some researchers.
Constant exposure to death and destruction can result in substance abuse, depression, the inability to properly respond to emergency situations, and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the research. First responders often come to their professions with military backgrounds already packed with trauma, so new stressors are added to the old.
Reports of police officer suicides in the U.S. have increased from 172 in 2018 to 228 in 2019, nearly a 33 percent jump, according to Blue Help, an organization that compiles police suicide data. In 2020, 22 law enforcement officers have already taken their own lives as of Feb. 14. Since 2016, when the organization recorded 143 police officer suicides, the numbers have increased by nearly 60 percent when compared to 2019, Blue Help figures showed.
The people compiling the numbers also say the increase could represent an uptick in suicide reporting or a combination of an increase in suicides and suicide reporting. The stigma and shame surrounding first responder suicides is also believed to contribute to a significant undercount of emergency worker suicides.
No one wants to say their names
When Castillo was a patrol officer, it was not popular for police to seek help for mental distress brought on by the rigors of the profession. Officers were afraid the information might be used against them, Castillo said.
It was also not popular for families to admit that a relative who was a first responder died at their own hands. That remains unchanged for the most part. Many insurance providers will not support the family of an insured person who has died by suicide.
Stigma and shame also make families hesitant to reveal the suicide of a loved one. On the Blue Help website, which lists dates for all of the hundreds of police officer suicides the organization has gathered, only a few of the names are revealed.
“You didn’t ask for help,” Castillo said. “These were things that you just kept to yourself.”
Manny Ramirez, Fort Worth Police Officers Association president, says the stigma is one of the main reasons some officers don’t ask for or get help for their mental health.
That has got to change, Ramirez said.
The association has partnered with multiple organizations that are ready to provide counseling when asked, and the help is always provided on a confidential basis, Ramirez said.
“We want officers who are not only physically strong but mentally strong,” Ramirez said. “It’s in our best interest. We’re saying it’s OK to not be OK. We want officers to reach out before it gets too bad.”
One Fort Worth police officer took his own life in 2019, but Ramirez has not discussed the issues surrounding his death or identified him out of respect for his family.
“That hit us really hard,” Ramirez said.
One of the organizations the police association funnels officers to is 22 Kill and Stay the Course, which also offers mental health counseling for veterans. The name of the organization 22 Kill references the 22 veterans who take their own lives every day.
The information officers share with counselors and with the association is confidential, and can initially be provided at no cost, Ramirez said. The goal is to make these programs as accessible as possible.
“This is a priority for us,” Ramirez said. “These officers are out here every day, taking calls and seeing things that people should never have to see. No matter how mentally healthy you come into this job, the job takes a toll. The Fort Worth POA wants to ensure that our officers have access to mental wellness because we cannot have another officer take their own life when it’s completely avoidable.”
In January, U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced the establishment of the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, created in October by President Trump through an executive order. One of the commission’s charges will be to address mental health issues officers encounter in their work.
There are federal grants available to further this work, Ramirez said, but more resources need to be made available on the state and local levels.
“It’s particularly alarming that, last year, more officers died by suicide than any year previously recorded,” Barr said, according to his published remarks. “In fact, more officers died by suicide than in the line of duty last year.”
According to other emergency service professionals, police officers are not the only first responders taking their own lives.
Trauma also hurts physical health, performance
The trauma is cumulative, and identifying a breaking point is tricky, said Brent Sanderson, Fort Worth Fire Department chaplain.
The suicides, car wrecks, burn victims — those images never go away, and they fester like untreated wounds, Sanderson said. For firefighters, sleep deprivation may also play a factor, he said.
Police officers, firefighters and paramedics are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, according to research published by the Ruderman Family Foundation, a philanthropic advocacy organization. In one small survey of 193 police officers, the average number of critical incidents witnessed during the course of a career was 188, the Ruderman research, published in April 2018, said.
“When you don’t deal with things for years, there is maybe that one final instance that can push you over the top,” Sanderson said. “When my son was 2, we made a call on a little boy where his uncle ran over him. There was brain matter all over the driveway from this little boy who looked just like my little boy. You do everything you can to save someone, and it doesn’t always work out that way. You go and try to save people and leave them in better shape than you found them and that doesn’t always happen.”
Firefighters and emergency medical technicians — most research does not distinguish between the two because both professions are characterized as firefighters — suffered PTSD, problem drinking behaviors and depression at much higher rates than the general public, the Ruderman research said.
Untreated mental health problems can lead to distracted emergency responders, which can diminish their effectiveness and which can be a problem for the general public, much like distracted drivers who can cause road mishaps. The Ruderman study said rates of depression and post-traumatic stress are five times higher than they are for the general population.
A University of Toronto study found that emergency service workers with PTSD showed performance deficits on complex tasks, and another study concluded that firefighters suffering from PTSD symptoms were more likely to report work-related injuries.
Mental health can also adversely affect physical health, which can also diminish the ability of first responders to perform, researchers said.
Given the constellation of problems that can be caused by untreated mental illness, suicide being the most severe culmination of those issues, the Fort Worth Fire Department began training firefighters in suicide prevention methods in January.
To date, and with prodding from Sanderson, more than 900 firefighters have gone through QPR (Question, Persuade and Refer) classes, said Kristi Wiley, program coordinator for the Jordan Elizabeth Harris Foundation, which provided the training.
The idea that so many firefighters have taken the training is proof that city officials are taking the issue seriously, Wiley said.
The stigma that surrounds first responder suicide is so great, it may take years before emergency service workers feel comfortable about coming forward and asking for help. But training the people who are most likely to witness their colleagues’ struggles will go a long way in reducing the stigma, Wiley said.
“This would not have happened two years ago,” Wiley said.
During the class, emergency service professionals learn how to approach their co-worker about suicide, and about warning signs, suicide facts and statistics, and myths that need to be dispelled, Wiley said.
“We need to ask the person directly: ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’ Persuade them to stay alive and then refer them to the mental health professional that they need to speak to,” Wiley said. “In a short amount of time, we are really giving a person the tools to help bring someone who is thinking about suicide back from the brink.”
What’s hard is living
Castillo’s therapist suggested he write about his experiences while in the Laredo Police Department in an effort to overcome his PTSD symptoms,
“I am currently working on my memoirs as a police officer,” Castillo said. “I’m calling it Nine Lives.”
The book includes the story of a patrol officer he knew who was in trouble, was fired from the force and subsequently killed himself.
Castillo said there is a chapter named for that officer’s nickname called “Lone Ranger,” because this was an officer who no one wanted to be around. Four hours after the meeting where he was fired, the officer shot himself. Castillo said the officer was going through a divorce at the time and had he not been fired, he may have lived.
Castillo also said he believes if maybe he had accompanied the officer to the meeting, perhaps he may have survived.
Castillo calls another chapter in his memoir, “The Little Girl.” Castillo said it’s about the night he almost shot that girl and her father. The incident occurred on New Year’s Day, 20 minutes before his shift ended, during a call about a domestic problem, in the space of a few minutes.
The screen door was unlocked and the front door was open. Castillo said he and his partner walked inside, drew their handguns and yelled “police” to no response. Castillo and his partner were standing about 12 feet apart when they first saw a man, maybe in his 30s, swaying back and forth, crying and shouting: “What have I done? What have I done?”
A Latinx woman, also appearing to be in her 30s, with dark, shoulder-length hair, lay on her back at the man’s feet, motionless and unconscious. A young girl knelt next to the woman, as if trying to awaken her, Castillo said.
“We yelled at the man, ‘Drop the gun!’ but he didn’t,” Castillo wrote. “He kept crying and swaying from side to side. I focused on his right hand, hoping he wouldn’t try to raise the gun. I desperately yelled a second time, ‘Drop the gun or we will shoot you!’ One .357 magnum bullet into his chest was certain death. I did not want to kill him and certainly not in front of the little girl, presumably his daughter.”
Suddenly the girl stands in front of her father, placing her arms backwards and around him as in a protective posture, Castillo writes. The child’s eyes, wet with tears and despair lock on his, the police officer she sees standing in front of her. Now Castillo’s handgun is aimed at her forehead. Castillo said he then pointed his gun at the man’s forehead with the idea of getting off a cleaner shot.
The little girl shouts — “No, no, no.” The man continues to cry, and Castillo’s partner yells, “Drop the gun or we will kill you!”
And then the man dropped the gun, Castillo wrote.
Castillo’s partner picked up the handgun and handcuffed the suspect. The woman had a small bullet hole just above her right breast and no pulse, no visible blood on her front and back meaning that she likely had bled internally. Homicide detectives were called.
Castillo said he has forgotten the girl’s name and never discovered what happened to her or her father, but still remembers both of them vividly.
“As I knelt, the little girl tapped my shoulder and tearfully asked, ‘Is Mommy going to be OK?’” Castillo wrote. “I stood up trying unsuccessfully to hold back my tears. I softly hugged the little girl and with a lump in my throat I told her, ‘Your mommy is dead.’ The little girl unleashed a howling cry that haunts me to this day.”
Castillo said that he prays the little girl found peace and good fortune.
“I am still seeking mine,” he wrote.
The trauma they see never goes away until they deal with it, officers say. They try to compartmentalize it, minimize it, joke about it, but it lingers and if left untreated that trauma often grows into mental illness.
Meanwhile, emergency first responders suffer in a way that is not good for them nor the public they serve, one that often pushes them toward suicide, Castillo said.
“Death is relatively easy,” Castillo said. “What’s hard is living.”