Imagine you’re running through the woods chasing after a dangerous person with a gun gripped in their hand. Suddenly they turn to engage you and when you draw your gun to protect yourself, your gun won’t fire.
This scenario is a type of dream many police officers say they have experienced,  Ardmore Police Department Deputy Kevin Norris said.
“I experienced it as soon as I started,” Norris said. “And it messes with you mentally.”
Although change appears to be brewing, Norris, who has worked for APD for nearly 22 years, said officer mental health is something that hasn’t been addressed very much in the past and still needs improvement.
In this year alone, the total number of confirmed suicide cases for law enforcement is higher than the amount of line of duty deaths, with 97 suicides and 55 line of duty deaths nationally, Norris said. There have been similar trends in past years as well, with 167 suicides in 2018 and 169 in 2017.

Facing day-to-day trauma
When Norris first started out on the force, he said there wasn’t much information on the types of trauma he was about to face.
“If someone had come in at the very beginning and told me, ‘Hey, you’re going to start having dreams and this is what you need to do to work through them,’ it would’ve been a lot better in the long run,” Norris said.
One of the first calls Norris said he had to deal with was a man that had suffocated his baby because the infant wouldn’t stop crying. At the time, Norris said he had a child that was nearly the same age.  “It hit me,” Norris said.
As a law enforcement officer, emotions are constantly on a rollercoaster, Norris said. Officers could be responding to rape, murder, assault, or other traumatizing incidents at one moment and in the next instant be making a simple traffic stop, he said.
And officers are expected to remain calm and collected through all of this, Norris said.
“When I first started, if you were an officer on a scene and you walked away from that scene and you had tears in your eyes then you weren’t man enough, you weren’t good enough,” Norris said.
Law enforcement, and first responders in general, have been taught this for so long that it can be hard for them to let their guards down,  Ardmore Behavioral Health Collaborative Director Ashley Godwin said. Godwin is married to a police officer.
“It’s really hard for people that are in these professions to break down walls, to be vulnerable and to open up because that’s not the role that they typically have to play,” Godwin said.
There is often a noticeable difference in behavior after an individual joins the force, Norris said. After he had been an officer for around five years, he said his mother and wife told him that he had become “more calloused to certain things”.
The trauma officers face also has a ripple effect on their loved ones, he said. “You don’t want them to know the things that you’ve seen,” Norris said.

Accessing care and breaking down stigma
Things have begun to change within the last five or six years, however, Norris said.
“Now, if you walk away from a scene and you have tears in your eyes, you’re not looked down upon,” Norris said. “It’s rough and I think one of the biggest things is for us to say ‘It’s okay’.”
The suicide rates in 2018 were so high that some began to take action, Norris said. At the Ardmore Police Department, Norris said he sent out emails to officers letting them know it was okay to be experiencing these things and providing them with resources to contact.
The department has also sent officers involved in major critical incidents to a three day training where they work one-on-one with counselors and other first responders, as well as to a counselor located in Stillwater who specializes in working with law enforcement, Norris said.
But some officers just don’t feel comfortable reaching out, Godwin said. Many fear that admission to dealing with mental health issues will negatively impact their career, she said.
“The idea of losing your career and losing your livelihood scares people,” Godwin said. “Just in my experience with police officers, they’re very concerned. If I say I’m having issues with depression, I’m losing my gun. That’s it.”
Officers are also involved with a vast majority of the community, especially in rural areas, Godwin said. Therefore, they face similar issues as counselors when accessing care in that many of their resources are individuals they interact with regularly.
Some may not want their neighbor or the person running the agency to be the one providing them with service in relation to suicide calls, she said.
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Godwin said. “I think we all play a role in perpetuating that myth. We have to make it okay and we have to be willing to say ‘You need help, it’s fine’.”
Norris said he thinks one of the major steps law enforcement needs to take is adding mental health programs into police academies and universities in addition to the existing programs on dealing with mental health patients and victims.
“I guarantee you that it’s (mental health) overlooked,” Norris said. “By no means would I ever say that we’re 100 percent perfect and if we ever think that we’re perfect we’ve messed up. We always need to strive to do more.“
One of the resources Norris said he suggests for officers experiencing mental health crises is copline.org, a national 24 hour hotline that is confidential and manned by retired law enforcement officers. For help call 1-800-267-5463, 1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-273-TALK or visit www.copline.org or suicide.org.