Last year in the U.S., more police officers took their own lives than died in the line of duty. Now, local families are pushing for lawmakers to make a change to save other officers’ lives.
Kenneth Mendes served his country in Iraq, and then, served his hometown of New Bedford.
“He was always a protector,” said his brother, Derek, who added that wearing the badge meant the world to Kenneth.
But at some point, the world became too much. Last summer, Mendes took his own life at just 34 years old.
His brother said the family was blindsided.
“You don’t actually think it’s going to happen to you and your family,” Derek Mendes said. “My mother goes to the cemetery every day. It’s hard to see her go through that.”
“It’s very difficult to see your department hurt,” said Chief Joseph Cordeiro of the New Bedford Police Department.
Mendes was the second recent member of the New Bedford police department to take his own life in a matter of months.
Blue H.E.L.P., a local nonprofit, says at least 20 officers in Massachusetts have taken their own lives since the beginning of 2016. It counted 155 law enforcement suicides nationwide just last year.
“Many of them, we can attribute their death directly to events that happened on the job,” said Karen Solomon, president and co-founder of Blue H.E.L.P.
Earlier this year, the group sponsored a law enforcement summit in Chelsea, aimed at strengthening peer support programs – helping officers support their fellow officers. But the ultimate goal is to change their mindset.
“We need to work on creating the culture that where it’s OK to not be OK,” Solomon said.
“We ask ordinary men and women to do jobs that are superhuman,” said Eric Caron, who worked as a federal agent for 25 years and said he took part in an operation where a colleague was shot and paralyzed for life. “We don’t do a very job as it relates to police stress and dealing with police stress.”
Caron said his service eventually led to nightmares, outbursts and even suicidal thoughts – struggles that he recently chronicled in a book about his career.
“It was something that I had to live with and I still live with for the rest of my life,” Caron said.
Caron said the state and federal government is not providing enough funding for the kind of holistic programming needed, with an emphasis on stress management and counseling.
“We are doing window dressing, for the most part, as it relates to police stress,” Caron said.
Advocates in Massachusetts are now pushing a bill at the State House that would require police officers to take a two-hour class on mental health and suicide prevention every year.
Meanwhile, local departments are taking action.
The New Bedford Police Department already has a peer program. Many officers are trained to spot signs and get help for those who need it.
But Cordeiro said more could be done – even suggesting officers have regular meetings with counselors.
“I think they need the support, and it comes down to dollars. But these dollars equate to lives,” Cordeiro said.
Derek Mendes would like to see some of the money currently spent on armor for the body spent instead on armor for the mind.
“It’s just happening too much. We need to stop it now. If we can save families from going through this for the rest of their lives, it’s worth every penny of it,” Derek said.
A House committee is currently studying the bill that would require officer mental wellness training to see just how much it would cost.
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