Suicide claims more police and firefighter lives than any of the dangers they face on the job, which is why a Virginia police department is using a video featuring first responders sharing their stories to help others.
Fairfax County police Officer Meg Hawkins has been in law enforcement, which helped her realize something was wrong with her husband, Eric Provow.
“But I saw the change in him,” she said. “His eyes changed, his body changed, his voice changed.”
A combat veteran in Afghanistan, Provow started having flashbacks, nightmares and trouble sleeping but never reached out for help.
“I was worried about losing my security clearance,” he said. “I was worried about losing my job. So I just kept it to myself.”
He said he suffered for almost a decade and began a second career as a Fairfax County firefighter after retiring from the military. Then came the moment that changed his life.
“My cup ran over,” he said. “It just got, uh, wrestling with the demons inside. I just got irrational and I felt that if I take my own life, then I no longer suffer and she no longer has to suffer.”
“He had made a comment to our friend that I wouldn’t have to deal with his demons anymore, and I knew that he was suicidal,” Hawkins said.
“I took my pistol and went in my car and I drove off to a secluded area and I sat there and just contemplated shooting myself, until the next morning,” Provow said. “I guess you could call it divine intervention, or all of a sudden rational thought kicked back in, and I started thinking about her and thinking about my daughter and I realized that I needed to get help and I wanted to live.”
He started treatment the next day and continues going to therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Fairfax County Police Chief Ed Roessler has been candid about the topic, too.
“I see a counselor,” he said. “I’m a human being. This profession and life in general is something that complicates our day-to-day decision-making. Unfortunately, as first responders, we are seeing horrific scenes over and over again, and also dealing with the stress of people who are just having the worst day of their lives.”
Last year, more police officers and firefighters died by suicide than all line-of-duty deaths combined. First responders are also five times more likely to suffer from PTSD and depression.
Roessler is trying to change that by speaking openly about his PTSD.
“I see a doc every couple of weeks to coach me how to be the best I can be,” he said. “PTSD is not just about combat vets. It’s life in general for everybody. Cumulatively, life stresses add up, and one day they will come and bite you, and it’s just like an injury, and we can get ourselves well.”
He wants first responders to know they’re not alone, so in January he started showing a video during roll calls featuring first responders sharing their stories.
“It’s difficult to watch but it’s the reality of first responders telling their mental health battle stories and how they continue to fight daily to maintain their wellness,” Roessler said.
“I think everybody, every day has ups and downs, and for him as the chief of the department to come forward and say, ‘Hey, look, even I have problems,’ I think that’s huge, and it makes a huge statement, and I think others should follow the example he set,” Provow said.
He and his wife believe the chief has opened the door to saving lives.
“So for me, if sharing my story prevents one veteran or one first responder from getting to the point that I was, then it’s a win,” Provow said, fighting back tears. “If it gets people to realize that it’s okay to ask for help and ignore the stigmas — because there is that, there’s stigmas, and we make more out of them then they are — then I’ll tell my story every day.”
Officer Opens Up About Coping After Wife’s Suicide
The video includes Steve Mittendorff of Virginia State Police, whose wife killed herself in 2016. Reports later surfaced she was cyberbullied by colleagues at the Fairfax County Fire Department.
“When Nicole and I went to bed on Tuesday night, she never made any mention to me that she had called in and taken sick leave,” he says on the roll call video. “Her plans were already in the making before she had done what she was going to do. She had begun to lay out her plans.”
He said his wife wrote a suicide note as she plotted her final moments in the woods at Shenandoah National Park.
“It was very clear that she was there to hurt herself,” he says. “It was very clear cut that that would be her last letter to anybody, and that would be her last form of communication.”
Mittendorff struggled emotionally after his wife’s funeral, and thoughts of suicide crossed his mind, too.
“So the next day, after the funeral, after everyone had left, it really became very, very hard for me, and I had never thought about taking my life before but I just wanted to be with my wife,” he says tearfully on the video. “I wanted to be with her but the difference between Nicole and I was that I could see in my mind all of my family, all of my friends; I could see my niece and my nephew, and I could see how by me taking my life was going to have an effect on them because I could see the effect first-hand of how Nicole’s suicide had affected us all.”
Until the video, Mittendorff had been private about his personal pain.
“You know, our bodies, our minds were not built to withstand and hold all that we see and endure on a daily basis in our careers, and after a while, that begins to build up,” he says.
But as things began to build up for him, Mittendorff reached out for help.
“I think I balled my eyes out when I realized I needed to go get help,” he said. “Like anybody, I was worried about how this was going to affect me at work. What do I have to disclose? What do I not have to disclose?”
But thanks to therapy he found hope.
“I don’t regret the decision of going and seeing a counselor,” he said. “I joke in the video that it’s the one hour every other week where someone actually sits and listens to me.”
He said he hopes the video and his story saves lives.
“Not everyone can go out and get the help that they need, and it’s not a sign of being weak,” he said. “Some people just don’t know where to go get it.”
Reported by Doreen Gentzler, produced by Patricia Fantis and edited by Perkins Broussard.