A 5K walk for law enforcement suicide awareness in Braintree, Massachusetts, in late August raised funds and garnered support for mental health services for police officers.
Organizers with the advocacy group Blue H.E.L.P. said the walk brought more than 300 participants who donated more than $20,000 for mental health and suicide prevention resources within law enforcement organizations.
“Any first responder, any person that dies by suicide, their life should be respected just like any other,” co-founder Karen Solomon told the crowd of participants at the day’s event.
The event brought together people who have friends or family members who have died by suicide.
One of those was the walk’s host, Debra Dupie, the mother of Abington Police Department Sergeant Alex Kokoros, who took his own life in 2018. Dupie was pleasantly surprised with the large turnout at the event.
“It’s a little overwhelming all these people showing the support that they are,” she told reporters with The Patriot Ledger. “They’re trying to make change.”
Also at the event was Molly O’Neil, widow of Chris O’Neil, a state trooper who took his own life in 2016. She told reporters that at the time of her husband’s passing there was “no education for families” on how to recognize signs of depression or trauma in law enforcement officers. O’Neil praised Blue H.E.L.P.’s work in organizing events and providing support for individuals who have lost loved ones to suicide.
“I consider us a survivor family,” she said. “It’s terrible to lose your loved one. It just affects everything you do for a while. It affects everything.”
Part of Blue H.E.L.P.’s work has been to raise awareness to get rid of any stigma surrounding mental health struggles.
“People aren’t staring me down anymore,” O’Neil said. “I felt like the world was on my shoulders, and I don’t feel like that anymore.”
Jennie Babcock, chairwoman of the Plymouth County Suicide Prevention Coalition, was also at the event. She got involved in the community after her 15-year-old niece died by suicide.
At the event, Babcock shared information about “mental health first aid,” which she provides trainings on for local departments.
“That’s how I got involved in this. We basically teach the science and symptoms of someone who might be in a mental health crisis,” she said.
Vania Mauricio, a police officer at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, said sometimes officers are still afraid to speak about their emotions and seek help after experiencing trauma on the job.
“There’s still a long way to go because a lot of officers still feel like they can’t ask for help because they’ll be seen as weak. A lot of officers are exposed to a lot of traumatic events and experiences,” she said. “It would be good for them to have resources and just feel like they can open up and speak about services that they need to prevent things like suicide.”
Weymouth Fire Members Assistance Chairman Jay Bailey said the most important aspect about raising awareness is communication.
“We need a change in culture. The department has resources, but people still need to step up to talk openly when things
get rough,” he said. “We had somebody stabbed recently that died. We had a shooting recently. And now we don’t talk about it afterwards.”
Bailey told The Patriot Ledger that the Massachusetts Legislature has proposed a bill, HB-2726, that would allow first responders to receive retirement benefits if they’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder within five years of their last date of service.
“I think that we’re on the doorstep, hopefully the onset of progress, and I think that the more this conversation develops publicly, we’re going to see the resources develop behind it. We wanna do this job, but we’re picking up trauma on these calls,” Bailey added.
According to Blue H.E.L.P.’s website, and as of this writing, 94 officers have committed suicide this year. On average, officers who took their lives had 15 years of experience accumulated on the job.
Blue H.E.L.P./Motorola Solutions Foundation is supporting kids of officers who have died by suicide. Learn more at bluehelp.org/blue-h-e-l-p-scholarship.