ORLANDO, Fla. — Any first responder knows there are inherit risks associated with their work, however some of those risks are not as obvious to the general public.

“The silent killer is suicide,” said Mark DiBona.

  • Blue H.E.L.P. says 167 officers died by suicide last year
  • Approx. 140 were killed in the line of duty last year
  • NEED HELP? Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

DiBona is a retired Seminole County Sheriff’s Deputy and now an advocate with Massachusetts-based “Blue H.E.L.P.”, a non profit dedicated to connecting law enforcement officers with mental health services.

Blue H.E.L.Psays there have been at least 124 officer suicides this year so far, including nine members of NYPD. It is expected to be the deadliest year for law enforcement in four years.

“Suicide is the number one killer of law enforcement right now,” DiBona said.

It’s estimated 167 officers died by suicide last year, compared to approximately 140 who were killed in the line of duty.

“We have to change the culture, we have to change the minds of officers,” DiBona said.

"I Went Home and Put the Gun Back in My Mouth"

It is something DiBona knows first hand.

“My first suicide attempt was in my cruiser, I put my gun in my mouth,” DiBona said. “I was talked down by another deputy. When I went home, I had the same issues; I went home and put the gun back in my mouth. That same night I called a friend and said ‘I don’t know what’s going on with me.”

Advocates like DiBona say there is a stigma that still lingers in the profession, a stigma based on fear of being seen as weak or even losing one’s job.

The issues are compounded by countless calls exposing someone to extremes of humanity, including homicides and child abuse.

“Those are all events that we take to heart, and you have to remember law enforcement officers, we’re human,” DiBona said. “Our bodies are not built to see the toxic environment and to just shrug it off.”

DiBona said it’s hard for first responders to get quality help from outsiders.

Jaime Bridges worked for nearly 12 years as an Orlando police officer.

“Unfortunately I struggled with mental health and substance use issues while I was working on the force,” Bridges said. “In that time, after I left the police department, I decided one of the things I struggled with is where do I go for help.”

Bridges is now a licensed clinical social worker, helping to counsel law enforcement officers who now deal with mental health issues.

“In the time, you’re in the struggle, you’re supposed to be this 'fix everything' kind of person and when you ask for help, you feel well, and in our culture we’re still in that place,” Bridges said.

"There's So Much More There that We're Not Acknowledging"

The Centers for Disease Control reports the rate of suicides in general in the United States is at its highest rate since World War II, with law enforcement officers at greater risk than most people.

President Donald Trump recently signed legislation approve $7.5 million in federal grants to expand officer suicide prevention efforts, including mental health screenings.

In October 2018, the Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation passed a mandatory standard requiring agencies to develop a policy to provide officers with additional training on mental health awareness, prevention, mitigation, and treatment.

“It’s not just mental health and suicide, it’s substance abuse, it’s divorce, it’s domestic violence, it’s anger issues, there so much more there that we’re not acknowledging,” Bridges said.

Bridges and DiBona have become advocates in the effort to encourage departments to expand training and resources.

“You have to have push from the outside, push from the inside, it has to become a part of the culture of the police department, it has to be embedded, we have to be proactive, not reactive,” Bridges said. “We need to be supportive of officers who say they need help.”

Bridges said mental health is a major crisis not only for law enforcement, but all first responders including paramedics and dispatchers.

“It’s OK to not be OK,” DiBona said. “I tell officers, it’s OK to get help, don’t worry about what people think, don’t think about what you think your agency will think, your wellness is number one.”

Anyone who needs help is encouraged to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), which is available 24 hours a day.

Central Florida Agencies Respond

Spectrum News asked area agencies what resources they have in place. Here’s how some of them responded:

Altamonte Springs Police Department: Altamonte Springs Police Department reports it provides periodic training to identify stressors and teach healthy coping strategies which build resiliency. “We also utilized our Chaplain Program where appropriate and conduct Critical Incident Stress Debriefings when our members are exposed to exceptionally challenging events. In addition, we have a citywide policy in place detailing the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). This program provides professional and confidential personal assistance to employees (and their families) who are experiencing any type of personal problem. The program is part of the City’s continuing concern for the well-being of its employees. Employees may obtain professional assistance through a self or a supervisor referral. The goal of the program is to identify problems at an early stage and make a referral to an appropriate form of care.”

Daytona Beach Police Department: DBPD has provided classes to officers focused on stress management and other related issues in the past. The department reports it is currently making additions to its Employee Wellness Program, to expand on programs and resources outlined in its Employee Assistance Program and Critical Incident Stress Management Team directives.

Kissimmee Police Department: KPD has identified a wellness coordinator and are in the initial stages of developing a program to frequently discuss this issue during training periods and be available to discuss other health evaluations. KPD reports it has identified and created a critical incident stress management team. However, during critical incidents (like officer-involved shootings) KPD has reached out to Critical Incident Management teams in Orange and Polk counties “…because our goal is to make sure everyone/anyone who may be in crisis gets the help they need.”

Lake County Sheriff’s Office: “The Sheriff’s Office provides an Employee Assistance Program to all its employees. This is a benefit which allows an employee to anonymously seek help with a professional counselor to address issues such as depression, grief counseling, addiction, and other personal issues. We also provide stress management in-service training sessions for our deputies as a reminder of the fact that the stresses associated with this line of work can have a profound effect on our physical health, as well as our emotional well-being. Employees receive instruction, tools, and techniques to help counter stress.  We have also instituted Post Traumatic Stress Disorder training, during which professionals speak with our deputies and help them to identify the signs of PTSD and how to seek help. In 2016,  we introduced the Racial Intelligence Training and Engagement (RITE)/Human Diversity training to all our sworn law enforcement deputies and detention deputies. This training is unique in that it teaches the deputies to identify their own emotions and be aware of these emotions when interacting with the public. It also provides take-away tools for dealing with stress. The foundation of this training is officer wellness.”

Lake Mary Police Department: Recently the Lake Mary Police Department brought in Sergeant Mark Dibona, retired Sergeant with the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, who did a presentation on mental health in Law Enforcement. Training is presented to the Officers on a Bi-Annual basis which focus on mental health, suicide prevention, EAP resources, and PTSD awareness. We also have Peer Groups available that run jointly with the Police Department and Fire Department.  We also have policies in place to care for the emotional well-being of its members as it relates to large scale incidents, mass casualties, fatalities, or any other stressful work related incident.

Marion County Sheriff’s Office: MCSO reports deputies and civilian employees “…all have professional counseling available to them at no cost through our employee assistance program. Supervisors are encouraged to watch the ones that they are supervising and if they find someone that they feel is in need of counseling help, they can suggest, and even in extreme circumstances, require the deputy to attend. All employees are given this information so that if they see another employee in need, they can help direct them to these free services. According to policy, this counseling/therapy is not something that can affect their promotions or existing position. It is kept completely confidential.”

Orange County Sheriff’s Office: “Substance abuse and mental health assistance are available through CIGNA Behavior Health Services and EAP (Employee Assistance Program) which provides customer service and licensed mental health counselors 24/7/365 by phone. In personal counseling and treatment will be coordinated by contacting CIGNA and/or EAP. The agency also has an On-site CIGNA Customer Service Representative that can assist employees with CIGNA questions and accessing services. CISM (Critical Incident Stress Management) team members are available to assist employees. Resources are posted on the employee portal, discussed in annual training, posted on bulletin boards and distributed to Supervisors.”

Orlando Police Department: Orlando Police Chief Orlando Rolon recently emailed the entire department, outlining the agency’s mental health policies: Physical and mental stress is something we all may feel from time to time.  Taking practical steps to manage your stress can prevent or reduce the damage it can cause. As we approach the anniversary of the Pulse tragedy, Officer Kevin Valencia’s shooting incident, and the beginning of the court proceedings of M. Loyd, I would like to take the opportunity to remind you of the importance of remaining resilient. Some people assume employees who choose to work in public safety know what to expect with what can happen on the job.  In many cases, it is true, but sometimes unusual traumatic events occur that can affect employees throughout the entire department. Many employees continue to perform their jobs in positive ways, but it still can take a toll physically, psychologically, and emotionally.  Long-term and culminating effects are different for everyone. Not effectively adapting to work-related stress can lead to physical and mental health problems. We must challenge ourselves to identify ways to remain well and resilient throughout our career.” OPD provides counseling referral service and CISM program with peer support.

Palm Bay Police Department: “The City has an Employee Assistance Program provided by employers’ benefit insurance. The department also has a Crisis Intervention Team staffed by peer officers that are available to officers after critical incidents.” PBPD reports it also partners with “Safe Call Now” which is a resource for public safety employees to speak confidentially.

Sanford Police Department: Sanford Police Department addresses mental health resources in its Wellness Manual/Policy, “…which addresses officer’s physical and mental well-being. Our officers’ physical and emotional well-being is a major priority, and particularly a passion of Deputy Chief Anthony Raimondo. Our policy is frequently reviewed and we have a Wellness Committee dedicated to continual betterment of the practices.” Sanford Police Department outlines in its policy their Critical Incident Stress Management plan.

Volusia County Sheriff’s Office: In May 2019, Sheriff Mike Chitwood addressed mental health services in an email to all law enforcement and civilian employees: “We don't talk about it much, but we all know this job can be stressful. Over the course of 3 decades in law enforcement, I've experienced it first-hand. It is because of this stress -- and for too long, our silence about it -- that suicide has now become the leading killer of law enforcement officers in the United States. Recognizing this problem, we’re taking a proactive approach in dealing with law enforcement stress. Some of the initial steps we are taking at the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office include the creation of a Stress Resources site that can be found on the Intranet home page. This site contains several links to outside resources that offer assistance with stress management. In addition, in the coming months we are planning to host a train the trainer course in law enforcement suicide prevention. In recognition of PTSD awareness month, during the month of June, the screen on VCSO computers will show a PTSD awareness ribbon along with the words: We’ve got your 6 – and your 12. While everyone knows to watch your 6, it’s all too easy to neglect your 12 – your head and heart. This is one of the principles of BlueHelp.org. I want you to know as an organization we have got your 12, and so do your family, friends, and co-workers. If you are having issues, I’m asking you to reach out and let us get you some help. Stay safe, keep up the great work and take care of yourself. I appreciate your hard work and dedication, and I want you to know we’re here to support you when you need it.”

Winter Garden Police Department: “Our organization does not have a “policy” in dealing with police officers and mental health. However, a majority of our officers have attended specialized training on how to recognize when a person is in crisis and would address the issue if it were happening within our organization. Furthermore, our agency has documentation throughout the building that provides our employees with guidance on who they could contact if they find themselves in a mental crisis.”

Winter Park Police Department: "The Winter Park Police has implemented a Critical Incident Stress Management Team. The team also includes a Peer Support Component. The team consist of police officers trained in Critical Incident Stress Management, mental health care professional(s) and religious -based volunteers (chaplains). This was developed to provide training, pre-incident education, on-scene response, defusing, debriefings, peer support, and one-on-one crisis intervention and counseling to police officers who may be affected by a critical incident. The Peer Support component is designed to assist in the identification and resolution of concerns or problems (personal or job-related) which may adversely affect a police officer’s personal or professional well-being or job performance. This is great resource for police officers, encouraging emotional ventilation and exploration of the personal effect that a critical incident may have in both the short and long term.”