Chicago area peer support organization aims to help with police officer suicide prevention

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel and Ross Weidner via WLS logo
Wednesday, August 31, 2022
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WeNeverWalkAlone.org is a network of peers and professionals always available to help police officers struggling with mental health and thoughts of suicide.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- With police suicides rising at an alarming rate, who is there for officers who need help?

A Chicago area program aims to protect the protectors by preventing police suicides; counselors and experts who answer many more calls than they would like.

Police and first responders are especially vulnerable to death by suicide. A 2017 Justice Department report found the Chicago police suicide rate was 60 percent higher than the national average. It is a problem across the metro area and the nation.

RELATED: 3rd Chicago police officer dies by suicide this month; department prioritizing staff mental health

For veteran Chicago lawman Bill Kushner and thousands of other officers, the heartache, tragedies and violence they see would overwhelm most normal people.

"There's an old saying among all cops, you know, I wish my mind could forget what my eyes have seen," Kushner said.

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And sometimes it's easy to forget that, out of uniform, cops are normal people who are dying by suicide at an alarming rate. There have been 20 in Chicago alone since 2018 and hundreds across the country; actual numbers probably unknown.

"For decades, departments made efforts to couch the suicide of a member by saying it was a gun cleaning accident or some type of accident. We know it wasn't. We weren't fooling anybody. The family knew it was a suicide. Everything everyone knew was a suicide. It was just trying to make the family feel better," Kushner said.

So in 2019, the former CPD commander and then Des Plaines police chief helped launch the web based program WeNeverWalkAlone.

It's a network of peers and professionals always available to help an officer on the brink.

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"The cumulative response to seeing crisis after crisis, having that always being hyper vigilance going to call the call and having to stay in this elevated sense of awareness that has that that cumulative effect on officers wears on them," explained Elgin Police Deputy Chief Adam Schuessler.

Elgin is among the departments now underwriting WeNeverWalkAlone.

"It's the changing the stigma of saying it's okay to be not okay, right? Like, hey, that call wasn't good. That call, I'm still thinking about and saying that's okay. Let's talk about it," Schuessler said.

It's a difficult mix: police who need help while they're on the job trying to help others.

READ MORE: Chicago's 22nd Police District hosts first-ever 'wellness fair' to help officers' mental health

The Chicago Police Department has its own Employee Assistance Program offering similar peer-trauma support; but the difference with the Never Walk Alone not-for-profit is its independence and anonymity, something Kushner said has kept some officers away from seeking help.

If you feel suicidal or you're worried about someone you know, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. You can also text the Crisis Text Line by messaging TALK to 741741.For more information, visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.