EDITOR’SNOTE:This is the first installment of a three-part series about suicide.
“Pain shared is pain divided.”
Norwalk Police Officer Dave Ditz has taken that quote from retired Army Lt. Col. David Grossman to heart when dealing with the aftermath of responding to suicides. Grossman teaches mental survival skills.
Ditz stressed the importance of officers dealing with their own emotional state after handling a suicide call.
He believes it’s common for all people to talk through issues, just as parents encourage their children to discuss their problems.
“The need is to talk about it right away,” Ditz said.
Since around 2002, county officers trained in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) are doing just that: Providing a way for their peers to debrief traumatic calls. CISM is a multi-stage process in which a trained team of officers facilitate the discussion of emotionally difficult incidents.
Huron County Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Dane Howard said officers had done their own debriefing after a suicide naturally in casual settings before CISM was formalized.
“We debriefed ourselves. You talk it out with the fellow officers who were there with you,” Howard said.
There were 38 reports of suicide or attempted suicide to the Norwalk Police Department from Jan. 1, 2006 through May 10, 2007. Chief Kevin Cashen said less than a 1/2 percent of the department’s total reports were suicides or attempts.
“The attempt is more the norm than the completion,” he said.
There were six suicides in Huron County last year — the same number in 2003 and 2004, according to the Huron County General Health District. There were four county suicides in 2005.
Responding to suicides
Howard was one of about 20 officers who assisted the New London Police Department when a man took his own life with a pistol in front of them about six or seven years ago. An officer had gone to the man’s home to serve a warrant on him and he barricaded himself in a room with a gun to his head.
Howard, the hostage negotiator for the sheriff’s office, said he and other officers had a “very limited” conversation with the man before he pulled trigger.
“It was very quickly after we got there,” he said. “There’s no way to prepare to see that.”
The man declined to answer the phone when officers called, so Howard and two other deputies went in the home to contact him.
“It was quite tragic. It took quite a bit (of time) for a lot us to get through. It’s not natural to see someone take their own lives,” he said.
In Norwalk, multiple officers are dispatched to the scene of a possible suicide. They immediately dispatch emergency medical services if someone needs medical attention.
Cashen said officers also determine if the person is a threat to themselves. “Our concern is safety first.”
The chief said officers treat the initial complaint as a crime scene until they can determine what happened. Howard said the sheriff’s office handles all deaths as homicides until proven otherwise.
“We always try to find out what led up to this,” Ditz said.
Officers also refer the victim’s relatives, and in the case of attempted suicides, refer the victim to mental health professionals.
“Suicide or attempted suicides are a traumatic event for family members and can be for first responders,” Cashen said. “Professional help is available for that type of event.”
After responding to a suicide, Howard said it’s common to “think about it a lot over the next couple weeks.”
Both Howard and Ditz said the key for officers is to move forward and stay healthy. They believe the previous “tough guy” mentality has been fading over the last 10 years because authorities have realized there is education available and that the “tough guy” perspective is unhealthy.
“You have to deal with what’s real,” Howard said.
Ditz added: “You can turn your emotions off at the time, but at some point, you have to turn them back on.”
On Friday, officials with Firelands Counseling & Recovery Services and ADAHMS board (Alcohol and Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services) discuss trends in suicides and what help is available. On Saturday, police officers discuss handling a victim’s family after a suicide.
Why suicide? What are some pre-suicidal warning signs?
Authorities believe most people commit or attempt suicide because of the person feels hopeless and/or helpless. All people who are considering killing themselves should seek professional help from a mental health professional or clergy.
Here are some possible reasons or warning signs:
Prolonged illness and/or pain
Changes in lifestyle
Feeling like a burden to others
Unfulfilled, unrealistic expectations
Pressure to succeed
Social, academic or personal pressure
Poor self esteem
Sources: Firelands Counseling & Recovery Services; Huron County Sheriff’s Office