It’s a problem among cops that few talk about outside the police community: Post traumatic stress disorder which can cause big problems on the job and off. It can lead even to suicide in an alarming number of cases.
In fact, suicide is now believed to be the leading cause of death among first responders. More than those who are killed by felons. More than officers who perish in auto accidents.
La Mesa Police Officer Tim Purdy is a tough, well-trained and nine-year veteran cop equipped to handle most any situation.
But an officer-involved shooting made Purdy realize that no first responder is emotionally bulletproof from the danger, stress and anxiety that comes with the job.
His life changed one summer night in August 2011 when he and another officer responded to a domestic violence call.
A man, on probation after recently being released from jail, met officers on the street with a shotgun.
The suspect pointed his weapon at Purdy and another officer who shot and killed the gunman.
Killing a man, though the shooting was justified, was traumatic for Purdy but what really rattled him was coming into contact with the gunman’s children moments after the shooting.
“That was difficult for me as far as knowing that I had just killed their father. I had a lot of guilty feelings. I dealt with nightmares, wasn’t speaking with my supportive wife about this. Eventually I just didn’t see the purpose in life and that’s when I needed more help,” Purdy said.
He got the help and learned he was one of an estimated 120,000 first responders nationwide suffering from PTSD according to the Justice Department.
That number included people in his own department like La Mesa Captain and Detective Dan Willis.
For his part, Willis battled through PTSD after being consumed by a murder case he worked on for five years. His efforts to resolve the case taxed his marriage and spirit in the process.
After getting better, he set out on a mission to help other first responders researching and writing a book called "Bulletproof Spirit."
“Think what first responders go through. How do you get used to watching somebody die? Or someone begging for their life and then expire? Or fight for your life? And you can’t help but suffer with many of our victims. The way that we try to get used to it is we shut down,” Willis said.
Experts say officers doing that can lead to bad performance on the job and bad behavior off.
“If they don’t raise their hand and say ‘I need help. Will you help me?’, how do they handle that? If they internalize it over time, it erupts. It has to come out one way or another,” said Scott Silverman who runs a San Diego-based recovery program called Confidential Recovery geared towards first responders whom he says are twice as likely to develop substance addiction as the general population.
And when those suffering don’t get help and hit bottom, the consequences can be fatal.
The Department of the Medical Examiner, San Diego County tells NBC7 that since 1997, at least 57 first responders including police officers, firefighters and medics have taken their own life.
Many were active duty, some were retired.
Nationwide, there are estimated 150 police suicides every year according to advocacy group Badge of Life which compiled data used by the Department of Justice.
“Even though suicide is the number one death, only 3 percent of agencies in the country have suicide awareness and prevention programs,” said Willis.
For its part, San Diego Police Department and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department say they have increased mental health support in recent years.
The SDPD created a Wellness Unit with the mission to be visible accessible and more proactive: A spokesman said just during this past quarter, the unit initiated contact with 149 members of the department who might be at risk.
Thirty-five others came in for help.
Advocates say it’s a good start and that officers in the often tough-guy, suck-it-up police culture are more often now admitting they need help.
While the PTSD survivors with whom we spoke tell us that departments need to do even more, they do say they are hopeful that this trend of better police department preventative action will continue so that fewer first responders will have to protect, serve and suffer.