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The uncommon leadership approach that helped save my life

When I faced a severe mental health crisis, it was the compassionate outreach of my chief that marked the beginning of my recovery


Pictured from left to right: Commander Jason Kiel, Chief Chris Guererro, author Christopher Littrell and Commander Aaron Clem, recognizing Chris’ years of service at a City Council meeting.

Editor’s Note: Suicide is always preventable. If you are having thoughts of suicide or feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline immediately at 988. Counselors are also available to chat at Remember: You deserve to be supported, and it is never too late to seek help. Speak with someone today.

As I drove to the local bank, I was completely overwhelmed with my circumstances. After almost 19 years of being a Washington State law enforcement officer, I had just taken a sharp spiral downward. I was consumed with anxiety and depression, and the images of me shooting myself in the head flashed before my mind. What was I going to do? How could I fix my brain?

My mental health crisis surprised me but didn’t come out of nowhere. The past few years had been especially tough on me with everything surrounding COVID, negative police sentiment, upticks in crime and violence, and the ongoing flood of trauma and death. The mounting stress finally crashed over me in tsunami proportions and had me in a dark place. I reached out to my doctor for help. She prescribed me medication and put me on medical leave for 30 days. I called a division commander and told him the news.

As my head was spinning, I refocused my attention on driving. I was traveling through a congested intersection that led our city in collisions and to make matters worse, it was under construction. A traffic accident was not going to help my stress level.

As I stopped at the red light, my phone rang. The phone number was not programmed in my phone. Should I answer it? It was probably a telemarketer, and I was not in the mood to be bugged by an unwanted call. After a moment of indecision, I decided to answer it anyway.


“Hello, Chris. This is Chris Guerrero. I was just calling to see how you were doing.”

My chief? This was not his work number. He was calling my personal number from his personal number. He was addressing me by his name and introducing himself by name too.

Chief Guerrero and I worked together as peers in detectives 15 years prior. He had been my boss on the SWAT team. He was a mentor to me over the years, both formally and informally. He is a man I deeply respect and whom I believe cares about his people. He is not perfect, and it is in his imperfections and humility that my respect for him has grown. It was not unusual for him to call me by name, but he usually did not introduce himself by first name.

“Hey, Chris,” Chief Guerrero continued. “I want you to know that I am here for you. At the end of the day, we were friends before I was promoted, and I care about you. There are going to be times I need to take care of business. When that time comes, we will communicate directly with you about it. At the same time, I want to make sure you take this time to do what is best for you and your family.”

At this point in the conversation, I had pulled into the bank parking lot and backed my truck into a stall. I was in tears. Emotionally I was raw, and hearing the love and support from my chief meant everything.

“Chris, I hope you get better and come back to work. If you can’t, I support you. Focus on you and your family.”

The lump in my throat was intense. I thanked my chief for reaching out. He didn’t have to. In fact, from my experience his actions were uncommon.

Over the past 15 years, I have served as a peer support officer. More recently, I was put in charge of our peer support team as the team coordinator. I have sat with officers after major incidents and walked with them in the weeks and months following major uses of force, in-custody deaths, and bouts with anxiety and depression. The single greatest complaint I have heard from officers has been the silence and perceived lack of support from their chief/sheriff and command staff.

The evidence for the value of leadership engagement

The compelling need for law enforcement leaders to proactively check in with their staff is underpinned by a robust body of evidence highlighting the unique stressors faced by law enforcement officers. Research and expert analysis demonstrates how the high-stress environment of policing significantly impacts officers’ mental health, making the case for leadership’s crucial role in suicide prevention and the overall well-being of their personnel.

The role of connections in suicide prevention

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasizes the protective role of connections at various levels — individual, relationship, community and societal — in preventing suicide: A range of factors at the individual, relationship, community, and societal levels can protect people from suicide. Everyone can help prevent suicide. We can take action in communities and as a society to support people and help protect them from suicidal thoughts and behavior.” [1]

For law enforcement officers, who operate within a high-risk environment, the significance of these connections, particularly within the context of their professional relationships and community, cannot be overstated. Leadership engagement is a key element in fostering these critical connections, offering a buffer against the occupational hazards of policing.

The impact of administrative support

Doc Shauna Springer’s work, notably in her book “Relentless Courage,” brings to light the concept of “administrative betrayal” and its potential to exacerbate officers’ mental health struggles: “Administrative betrayal can be the final piece that pushes officers over the edge. To suddenly be treated as an outsider who is viewed with suspicion rather than trust is devastating.” [2]

The sense of being treated with suspicion or alienation by one’s own department can deepen feelings of isolation and distress. Conversely, administrative support, characterized by clear communication, mutual trust, and a transparent process for reintegration and understanding employment expectations, plays a pivotal role in mitigating these risks.

Clear communication as a trust builder

Springer further points out the importance of clear communication regarding employment status, rules, and the pathway back to active duty: “Those whose employment status shifts must be informed of any rules and expectations, up front. Also, both parties need to have a good understanding of what the “on-ramp back into service” looks like and what a general time frame will be. Lack of clarity around this is fertile ground for breeding mutual mistrust and a variety of potential misperceptions about each other’s motives, even in the cases where both parties are acting in good faith.” [2]

Such transparency is crucial for preventing misunderstandings and fostering a culture of mutual trust and support within the force. Misunderstandings and misperceptions can flourish in the absence of clear communication, undermining the foundation of trust necessary for a supportive work environment.

The end of the story…

Days after my chief’s phone call, I made one of the toughest decisions of my life. I checked myself into an inpatient mental health recovery center. I had a million excuses for why I did not need to go to inpatient, and I had three reasons why I decided to go anyway:

1. The intrusive thoughts of suicide scared me, and I wanted to get better.

2. My wife gave me unconditional support to go.

3. My chief told me he supported my actions to get better.

I canceled my 25th wedding anniversary trip with my wife and bailed out of the annual family vacation to the beach. I called a variety of friends to make sure that the lawn would be mowed, construction debris taken to the dump, and other errands handled. I was really doing this. My head was spinning, and I was sick to my stomach.

Checking into inpatient was extremely humbling. I gave up most of my freedoms. I turned over my cell phone. I had to give staff all medications and vitamins. I had no access to the outside world for the first eight days and then had 10-15 minutes per day of phone privileges. Each morning, I checked in with a staff member who ranged in age from 18 to 50. The staff member would give me my medications and vitamins and inform me if I needed to pee in a cup. Let that sink in. I was asking an 18-year-old permission to take my vitamin C each day! I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and challenged to lean into the hard work.

The day-to-day therapy work was intense. I was uncovering decades of work-related trauma. My body would have a stress response just stepping into the Pain Box, the room where we did the majority of our group therapy sessions. I shared the most intimate details of the trauma that impacted me the most with strangers. We grew close quickly.

The other clients shared the lack of support they felt from their organizational leaders – both stories of silence or explicit words that told them their jobs and relationships were in jeopardy. I realized that my experience was not the norm. My chief’s phone call was more than uncommon, it was extraordinary.

After 34 days of inpatient treatment, I was discharged and returned home. I enrolled in intensive outpatient therapy and one-on-one counseling. My chief and his command staff continued to reach out to me in this process, communicating business when it was necessary and reminding me that they cared about my long-term health.

Lessons from Chief Guerrero

As I have reflected on this wild journey, I credit my continued recovery to numerous people who have supported me and my family. Chief Guerrero is among those who were there for me in a dark time. As agency heads around the country struggle with recruitment, retention, and employee wellness, I believe Chief Guerrero’s actions are worth studying and modeling. Here are the lessons I think all law enforcement leaders can take from his actions:

Make the call

I believe this is a hard decision for many sheriffs and police chiefs. What do you say to an officer in crisis or on admin leave? Will the employee think your call has ulterior motives? I don’t know. However, you get one shot to communicate that you care. Make the call. Focus on your care for them as a person. Keep it simple.

Be human

I will probably never call my chief by his first name, but I love that he introduced himself as Chris. It reinforced that he cared about me as a man more than who I was on the organizational chart. I wasn’t just a tally mark, a warm body, or a problem. I was a person. I was a husband and a dad who needed help. The Chief verbally told me to focus on my health first.

Handle business

Chiefs, sheriffs and command staff must handle business too. You are responsible for all the people, not just one person. If I put my chief in a situation where he needed to choose between what was best for me or the rest of the employees, he should pick the group every time. I don’t think this black-and-white dichotomy exists that often though. It does not need to be an us vs. them fight. It can be an us and them partnership. When the chief or his commanders spoke with me about business, I knew they needed me to do my part to help them take care of the details.


Sheriffs and chiefs are busy, I get it. Follow-up is not easy. Especially if your employee is not reaching out to you often. After all, phone calls are a two-way street, correct? Yes, they are AND you are the leader. Take the time every once in a while to check in with your folks. It will make a bigger difference than you realize.

The end is a beginning

In the end, I decided to medically retire from law enforcement. This was the right decision for me and my family for my long-term health. This was the right decision for the agency and the citizens of the City of Kennewick, as my PTSD could have led to poor outcomes in the field.

I still believe that policing is the greatest career field in the world. The individuals I served with and those who continue to serve, do so at great personal sacrifice. If I had the opportunity to turn back the clock and decide all over again, I would raise my right hand and make the same pledge today…to serve and protect.


1. Center for Disease Control. Risk and Protective Factors. October 23, 2023.

2. Springer S, Sugrue M. Relentless Courage – Winning the Battle Against Frontline Trauma. Hidden Ivy Press, 2022.

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Christopher Littrell is a retired law enforcement leader from Washington State. With almost 25 years of public service, he had the opportunity to serve as an Air Force security forces sergeant, patrol officer, gang detective, child crime detective, CISM peer support group counselor, SWAT member, school resource officer, patrol sergeant, detective sergeant and community services sergeant. Christopher is a survivor of job-related PTSD. He is a leadership instructor for the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. Christopher is the owner of Gravity Consulting & Training, LLC, and teaches leadership, emotional intelligence and communication skills. He and his wife co-host the Gravity Podcast with the mission of captivating audiences with perspective and support.