MESA, AZ — It has been just more than a month since Mesa Police Officer Mitchell Winters died by suicide at the age of 23.
According to Blue HELP, an organization dedicated to the mental health of first responders, he is one of 154 in this country who have taken their lives this year.
The Washington Post calls police officer suicides a “quiet epidemic.”
It’s a number that retired police Officer Robert Taylor nearly added himself to.
“For me it was either I was going to end up killing myself or if I wanted to stay in this career that’s what it was going to come down to,” he said.
Taylor’s career started off strong, first serving with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office then as a deputy in Pinal County, followed by the Fort McDowell Police Department.
He says the demands of the job were expected, knowing he would most often interact with people on their worst days. And while the resulting heroics were celebrated, trauma calls didn’t always end well and the emotional impact left behind from that is NOT expected.
In Taylor’s case, he says while serving with Fort McDowell police, that impact was not to be discussed.
“I had a supervisor on scene at one of my incidents who actually watched me react in a way that’s not normal for someone to react. It involved a child drowning and his exact reaction at that time was pick it up and move on.”
Like many first responders, Taylor found himself struggling mentally and turning to alcohol to escape his reality. He tells ABC15 drinking heavily was the only way he could get himself to sleep.
He finally worked up the courage to ask for help but instead of being met with compassion, he says he was met with ridicule.
“I was told some terms and you know they still make jokes back at my old agency like ‘oh, better be okay you’re gonna go pull a Taylor’.”
According to psychologist Katherine Kuhlman, Taylor’s story is all too common.
She specializes in treating police and public safety officers.
“When I heard about the Mesa police officer I thought, not another one,” she said.
She says the accumulation of traumatic events can change behaviors and can’t be ignored but the job itself isn’t the only thing causing emotional trauma.
We, the people these officers have committed to serving, are also to blame.
“We know that more officers die by suicide than in the line of duty every year. Is it surprising? No. Especially in the last two years officers went from being front line heroes to being vilified. All in a matter of weeks.”
She says many of the officers she treats are embarrassed to say what they do for a living creating what she calls the perfect storm for suicide.
In 2018 after hitting rock bottom and finally getting help, Taylor retired.
“I was 31 when I turned in my retirement papers. It sucked. It was the worst feeling in the world. It was my identity, it was who I was.”
Here is a list of just some of the resources available for law enforcement and other first responders when it comes to mental heath:
The Fort McDowell Police Department says it heavily denies many of Taylor's claims in this story. The department's full statement in response is below:
"The Ft. McDowell Yavapai Nation Police Department has always made its law enforcement officers' mental and physical health a priority. The Nation's Police Department makes available a number of resources for its officers, including providing on-staff trained peer counselors, conducting in-depth debriefings after serious incidents, and referring officers to the Nation’s Employee Assistance Program. The Police Department disagrees with Mr. Taylor's statements and is saddened by his characterization of our response to his needs.
Regards, Tom Gonzales, Sergeant/Acting Chief of Police"