Officer Paul Buchanan, an East Hartford, Connecticut, police officer was decorated, had won awards, and a friend to all. “Even the bad guys would ask for him,” said Trish Buchanan, his wife of 29 years.
He was a father of two sons, won police officer of the year in 2008, but throughout his career he struggled with aspects of the job, said Buchanan. “It can happen to the best of the best.”
Officer Buchanan was a patrolman most of his career and this took a toll on him. But at the time the changes began happening, he was working inside the department. His wife noticed the stress building in him such as he was sleeping more, not exercising as much, talking about his job. He also suffered chronic pain, high blood pressure and sleep apnea.
They talked about Paul seeing a therapist but he was hesitant to go through employee assistance because of the stigma of mental illness. Many times cops feel that if their department knows how they are feeling they might lose their jobs.
Thus, he made the appointment with EAP and went. He was given a meditation handbook and he never went back.
They called their insurance company and got names but several weren’t taking new patients. Paul refused to go to the hospital because that’s where he took prisoners and he knew the doctors there.
Besides, in Connecticut, if you go to the hospital and tell them you are suicidal they take your weapon away. How would Paul return to policing without a weapon?
They eventually found a local psychiatrist, who was not particularly experienced with law enforcement. He was put on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs. He was diagnosed with PTSD, panic disorder, anxiety and depression.
He also wrote a letter to his department to return him to patroling the streets.
However, Paul still struggled. He was losing weight and staying inside the house more and more. He and Trish talked about him taking early-retirement or disability.
“He never wanted to show that he was weak,” said Buchanan.
In January of 2013, after going to a bad apartment fire that had been arsen, where Paul was taken to hospital for smoke inhalation, he took the month off.
After a month off work, Paul wanted to return to work because he felt like a failure and a weak officer. The department created an inside position for him. But it was too late. Officer Paul Buchanan died by suicide.
Seeing all sides of humanity takes its toll
“Cops respond to situations where they see man’s inhumanity to man. Most people never see in a lifetime what cops see every day,” said Louise Pyers executive director of Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement (CABLE).
“These things cause depression, anxiety, physical symptoms such as headaches and full-blown ptsd.”
They have stressors from serving in an environment that is not friendly in terms of media, painting them negatively with a broad brush as well as working with people in dire straits kids, sexual abuse victims, people who have died Pyers added.
First responders must be hypervigilant for their own safety and the safety of others and this takes a toll on their bodies leading to physical and mental health issues.
CABLE provides resources for first responders through workshops and peer support as well as referral guides for professional help.
“We provide mindfulness for first responders and yoga so when something happens it will be more easy to bounce back because they will have the tools,” said Pyers.
“We recommend yearly check ups from the neck up,” said Pyers. This is where cops will see a therapist to unload and learn healthy coping strategies.
CABLE trains cops in peer support such as how to listen and when to make referrals. Sometimes its hard for cops to trust anyone but their own. Some who are hesitant to see a mental health professional are willing to talk to another cop. CABLE provides a list of providers who are trained to understand public safety culture. They also provide mindfulness groups for first responders and lists of other resources in the area supportive to cops. Therapists trained in trauma usually use EMDR and art therapy to treat officers. Most officers prefer to go to a mental health professional outside of their department as their is more privacy.
“The shocking thing is cops are more likely to die by their own hand then by an assault,” aid Pyers.
“These are normal human beings subjected to the stressors of human beings,” said Pyers.
Spiritual First Aid for First Responders
Police officers are dispirited and demoralized. There is no mechanism to nourish their spirituality so they may engage in self-destructive behaviors,” said Chaplain Cary A. Friedman of Passaic, New Jersey.
While speaking at a conference in 2000, Friedman was asked by someone from the FBI to design a program for police officers and FBI agents that was spiritual not religious. Sometimes the stressors of the job caused law enforcement to lose faith and forget why they began their careers. Friedman developed a book with the tools for spirituality for law enforcement by interviewing police officers and FBI agents at Quantico. The law enforcement professionals told him of the stressors they faced candidly.
The book is titled Spiritual Survival for Law Enforcement by Cary A. Friedman and is available on Amazon or whereever you order books. It gives a tool kit for cops to come back to their faith in a higher power and in humanity.
“Police officers are drawn to the profession because they are very spiritual people. They enter the career incredibly idealistic. They aspire to do good in world to make a difference in people’s lives, presearving American way of life protecting us from the bad guys,” Friedman said.
A training for cops is the mechanics of being a cop, there is nothing to help preserve that idealism that sense of spirituality. During the job, they see and do things that deplete that idealism. They need to replenish it said Friedman.
“It’s kind of like they end up in spiritual overdraft in psychic pain and they don’t know the reason,” he said.
“Every so often, cops need to revisit the whys of being a cop,” Friedman said.
A cop’s spirituality exists in three dimensions: 1. higher truth; 2. interact with other people; and 3. interact with themselves. All three get depleted through the course of the job. Friedman’s book gives cops the tools to refill the well of those three accounts.
One activity Friedman suggests is for a cop to write a credo about their values and why they went into policing. Then, put it away somewhere and every once in awhile remind themselves of that statement they wrote.
The Note that Began Change
Officer Paul Buchanan left a note which was found with him.
It read “Make my death an issue. Help others like me,” said Trish Buchanan his widow.
“The reason I share our story is we have to stop it, destroy the recurring culture toward suicide [that cops have],” said Buchanan.
Buchanan and her family knew they had to do something to memorialize her husband. One day she saw a truck on the highway with the word “Believe together” on it. Her non-profit Believe 208 was born that day. The number 208 was Officer Buchanan’s badge number. She worked with CABLE to offer peer support trainings and a mental health clinician training on law enforcement.
Believe 208 holds 5K races in Officer Paul Buchanan’s memory. September 2014 was their first race. The race promotes awareness and honors first responders. Five hundred people came out for first race including firefighters and miltary members. They raised $23,000. One-hundred percent of the funds go back to CABLE in order to provide resources and referrals for officers.
Trish Buchanan hands officers thank you cards with Believe 208 on it and resources for help on back. If you are an officer struggling or know of a friend, contact www.cableweb.org.
“First responders have written to me and feel the same way Paul was feeling,” said Trish Buchanan. “There are a lot of invisible wounds out there.”
A Badge of Life study found that in 2008 their were 141 police suicides; in 2009 143; in 2012 126 and in 2016 108. This phenomenon needs to end only with education and access to the right resources.
There is a new non-profit treatment facility being built in Connecticut to address first responders trauma, mental health and addiction. This will be a nice follow up place after an officer goes to residential treatment out of state.
“It’s time to change the laws and break resistence for officers to get help,” said Buchanan.