John Sylvester is a veteran Australian crime reporter. Owner of Sly-Ink, co-author of more than 25 true crime books, including the notorious Chopper Read memoirs and the franchise Underbelly series, ‘Sly of the Underworld’ (as he is known in Melbourne) is juiced in.
Street cops, detectives, gangsters, killers, you name it, he knows them all. He has them on speed dial, and they all want him to publish or write their books.
So he knows a good story when he finds one.
This week Sly reported in the Saturday Age about the alarming rate of suicides among police and first responders to crime scenes. Fellow blogger and author Christopher G Moore wrote last week about a similar problem in Thailand, albeit with significant cultural differences, both ethnic and work-related. Hence this week I add to this theme and provide another look at what happens when those on the frontline fall through the cracks and end up taking their own lives.
Sylvester states in his article that police in crisis are concealing their illnesses because they fear their careers will be damaged if they seek in-house treatment. A total of 23 operational police and six police civilian workers have taken their own lives since 1995.
Seven police have killed themselves in the past 30 months. None sought assistance from internal welfare experts despite an ongoing mental health awareness program. In the same amount of time 3 police have been murdered, meaning police employees are far more likely to take their own lives as they are to be killed by another person.
The average age is just 33.
He also sites a significant gap in the system; that of retired police, including one story of a retired officer who deliberately swam into a rip at a beach so that his suicide would look like a drowning. Then he adds a more personal note.
“There were three bodies at the house; dad in the garage, son in the lounge and the mother in the laundry – fingers bloodied from digging at the concrete as her second son came to kill her.
The next night the killer was arrested and charged, and the same detective typed the statement for the offender to sign.
Thirty five years later, as an old man, those images came flooding back to that detective. He could sketch the crime scene with his eyes closed and when they opened they would fill with tears.
I saw his pain first hand but couldn’t make it go away. He was my father…”
Former US policeman turned psychologist Dr Kevin Gilmartin, the author of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, says police who neglect their families and their health often turn from idealistic recruits to cynical veterans, and many develop suicidal ideations or tenancies.
Last year I wrote an article on Allan Sparkes, a retired ‘hero’ police officer. At the time the statistics showed that for every cop who died in the line of duty, five take their own lives. One… then five. That’s six.
Like firemen, paramedics, soldiers and others who work the front line, everybody has a limit. It’s like a sailing a yacht close to a shoreline of reef and jagged rocks. Some of the rocks stand out and you avoid them, but a lot are hidden beneath the surface and if you sail too close, you might clip the edge and suddenly you’re in the water. And, in many cases, so is your whole crew.
Your family, partner, colleagues and friends.
They’re in there with you, but you’re the only one without a life jacket and wetsuit. The water is cold, the waves churning, flooding your mouth and throat. If you don’t move fast, you’ll drown or smash against the rocks. Just another burnt out ship wreck.
In Pink Tide this happens to my main character, but this is fiction. For many, sadly, it isn’t fiction. It’s reality.
Allan Sparkes, like John Sylvester’s father, is one such person.
As a dedicated member of the New South Wales Police Service, Sparkes didn’t think twice about rescuing an 11-year-old boy from a flooded storm water drain in 1996. In doing so, he dived off his own yacht into dangerous seas with no life jacket, and became one of only five people to be awarded Australia’s highest decoration for bravery, the Cross of Valour, but the rescue came with a cost, including a downward spiral into post-traumatic stress disorder and clinical depression.
Allan’s recovery from debilitating mental illness was a rollercoaster ride of personal challenges that tested his courage and resolve over more than a decade. His is indeed an inspiring story.
“There is no darker place in your soul than the place you are when you are planning to take your own life,” he says in his memoir, The Cost of Bravery.
“It is a very private place. The thing I remember most is how quiet it was. There was no sound apart from the beating of my heart….
This is where I used to sit and plan ways of killing myself.”
Another story is that of Lachlan McCulloch, who in previous books added a sense of dark humour to his stories, but in Packing Death (underworld code for ‘out to kill’), McCulloch sheds a more honest and open account of his time working undercover with some the country’s most dangerous criminals. He won a Ned Kelly Award for this book, which again details the cost of bravery and the toll it took on his health, family and career.
A common thread in many of these stories is mental illness, in particular Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and anxiety.
A full length film released in Hollywood in 2012 and shot in documentary style pays real tribute to the cost of bravery and PSTD as a theme, and in a particularly poignant moment, the two main characters (recently awarded medals of valour) ask each other if they ‘feel’ like heroes. Neither of them do.
Medals of valour are indeed an honourable recognition of service, but what is the hidden cost?
“Watch your 6,” is a phrase used in policing as it is among soldiers of war. Your “6″ is your back. Watch your back.
When one abandons their “6″ and leaps into the water to save another, they are quite rightly awarded with recognitions of bravery. But given that for every cop who dies in the line of duty, five more take their own lives, something else may be needed.
There’s that number again… six.
I’m not sure on the stats for military personnel, but it might well be higher… If so, one might argue these medals are symbols of bravery as much as they are a call for help.
Perhaps, in sailing the yacht too close to the shore we throw our heroes into the water. When this happens, maybe it’s a not just a medal and a ceremony of recognition they need. Maybe what they really need is support and understanding when the PTSD comes knocking on their door.
Perhaps, if they don’t their own hand up, what they really need is a life jacket.
For anyone suffering issues of mental illness, there are services available. One reputable Australian service is Beyond Blue.