Massachusetts police officer Douglas Kingsley is walking from the Berkshires to Cape Cod to promote suicide awareness among first responders and to help break the stigma surrounding mental health issues in the profession.
Kingsley, who serves with the Sherborn P.D., is making the trek to raise money for the nonprofit Blue H.E.L.P., an organization that educates the public and first responders about mental health issues, provides resources and raises money to support families of suicide victims.
The organization began tracking suicides among first responders in 2016. Since then, 986 first responders have died by suicide, with 70 taking their own life in Massachusetts.
Kingsley began his walk on October 12 in Egremont at 7 a.m. He plans to walk along Route 23 toward his final destination, the Chatham Lighthouse in Cape Cod, which he estimates will take 10 to 12 days.
Kingsley first came up with the idea for his walk after his police academy friend and fellow National Guard member committed suicide.
“What will harm us even more is if we don’t talk and share — if we keep to ourselves,” Kingsley said. “I had the feeling that when it comes to suicide in our profession — mental health issues — it can be dismissed, or viewed though a negative lens.”
Kingsley is walking alone, but people can join him at any leg of the trip.
Members of the Berkshire Sheriff’s Department and New York State Police joined him to kick off his journey and rode beside him for a while in their cruisers. Berkshire County officers also joined in late on down the road.
So far, Kingsley has raised around $12,000 for Blue H.E.L.P. on GoFundMe.
Kingsley added that he hasn’t had trouble finding a place to sleep, with many in the community offering to help. “I’ve had random people reach out and offer their couch or basement or fire department,” he said.
Another police department’s union helped put him up in a hotel for a night, and he says he also plans to sleep in a church for another night.
As he passed by Searles Castle in Great Barrington, two staffers from the Berkshire Sheriff’s Department accompanied him. The department recently lost an officer who was an Afghanistan veteran. The suicide rate in the military is four times higher than tour-of-duty deaths.
Massachusetts law enforcement has also experienced a significant number of suicides in recent years. From 2015 to 2020, there were at least 20 deaths by suicide among police officers in the state.
Retired Massachusetts State Police Lieutenant Brian Berkel, a longtime board member on the Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention, lauded Kingsley’s efforts, noting that first responders see things every day that take a toll on their mental health, which in return affects their family’s mental health.
“They have to try to prevent that death from happening as best they can and they’re not always successful,” Berkel said. “Those alone are things that impact law enforcement officers and first responders, because one of the signs of people who are at risk for suicide is exposure to suicide.”
Berkel said that maintaining an open dialogue about mental illness is necessary to get officers to ask for help. “Don’t be afraid to have those conversations,” he said, “because that’s where the stigma gets broken down.”