Sick to Death of the Silence: Stories to Breakdown the Stigma of Mental Illness: Part 1
In November 2008 Kirsty was first concerned there may be something wrong when her husband, Chris, was not responding to texts and calls; a guy who she says ''was always hooked to his cell phone''. At first the texts were intermitten asking 'how was your day?' and got increasingly more frequent the longer she went without receiving a reply and calls went unanswered. The texts turned into ''are you OK?'', ''are you sick?'', ''where are you?'' with a degree of panic only a police spouse can understand. Knowing at that time of day Chris had said he would go home on shift to feed their 2 dogs Kirsty headed home from her job at the 911 Commuicatons Center to what she imagined would be a sick husband, leaning over the toilet, too sick to answer his phone.
Kirsty describes opening the garage door and seeing one of their dogs laying motionless on the cement floor beside Chris' vehicle. ''Chris must be sick at home because there is his vehicle parked inside the garage... but why isn't the dog getting up?'' she thinks. She proceeds to walk into the garage where she finds her husband lifeless on the ground along with their 2 dogs and cat, all deceased. Chris has taken his own life, leaving only a vague note to indicate why he had done so. Kirsty explains she went into shock saying ''I was trying to convince myself I'm not witnessing what I am witnessing''. Then having to call her own workplace to report this tragedy.
Kirsty, their family and close friends are all perplexed as to why someone who had shown no apparent signs of mental illness or suicidal thoughts would take his own life. Kirsty reflects on the weeks preceeding Chris' death trying to discern if the events were triggers or signs she had overlooked: a close friend and fellow CPS officer had committed suicide to which both Kirsty, who dispatched that 911 call, and Chris, as his close friend, had been included in the incident debrief and attended the funeral. Kirsty recalls asking Chris on several occasions ''are you OK?'' to which Chris responded ''I'm OK, but I'm worried about you''. Popular thought is that people who intend to committ suicide tend not to make plans, or look toward the future, and Chris seemed to do the opposite: he insisted they tackle their Christmas shopping, that they purchase a new puppy for Kirsty, he made plans with friends for a poker game which he was looking forward to & more. So where were these telltale signs that would alert Kirsty or anyone else to the turmoil Chris was facing within? For the past 7 years Kirsty has been struggling with her complicated grief, deppresion and PTSD; and tonight she courageously stood before a room full of people sharing her heartbreaking story and her struggles. She bravely admitted that she had considered ending her own life several times since losing Chris but said it was her true friends, family and excellent doctors inclluding CPS Psychologist Dr. Patrick Baillie who got her through those hard times; she was tormented by false rumours that spread across the CPS that it was her cheating that led Chris to take his own life; she is haunted by flashbacks and nightmares and more.
''Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.''
Kirsty's reason for speaking candidly about her experiences is because she is passionate about reducing the stigma around mental illness and seeking help saying ''asking for help is not a sign of weakness, maybe if Chris had asked for help he would still be here today''; and she credits the mental health professionals in her life for their excellent work.
The police community, while it is like our extended family, has flaws just like our true families. The police culture is one of strength and machoism where asking for help or showing any vulnerability is often percieved as a sign of weakness; where terms like ''Dr. Bonkers'' are common place in conversation; where rumours run rampant and people forget there is a real person amidst the gossip that is being affected.
Stigma is a negative stereotype; experiencing stigma and discrimination is one of their greatest barriers to accessing help.
Dr. Baillie pointed out that 22% of CPS officers accessed Psych Services - this is in line with the statistic from the Canadian Mental Health Association that says 1 in 5 people suffer from mental illness.
What can each of us do to help make a change:
Adopt an attitude of understanding and sensitivty around issues of mental health; refrain from trivializing issues of mental health.
Remove words from your vocabulary that perpetuate the stigma; words like Dr. Bonkers, delusional, nuts, crazy, abnormal, insane, mental, etc.
Don't be afraid to ask for help whether that means accessing psychological services, peer support or talking to a friend.
Beyond The Blue offers confidential peer support to police spouses: contact info@CalgaryBeyondTheBlue.com.