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'Mental health is real': Yellow pinwheels in Guilford County spotlight suicides among law enforcement officers

News & Record - 9/12/2023

Sep. 12—GREENSBORO — Kim Soban's voice cracked with emotion as she spoke Monday about the increasing number of suicides by law enforcement officers across the country and efforts to provide help locally.

After working for 15 years at the High Point Police Department before becoming a licensed clinical mental health counselor, Soban says this issue is near to her heart. Now, she and LaKisha Ellison provide in-house mental health services for the Guilford County Sheriff's Office.

During a news conference Monday with Sheriff Danny Rogers, Soban said law enforcement officers are reporting higher rates of depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder — and more are dying by suicide than in the line of duty. She pointed to more than 600 yellow pinwheels in the office's courtyard to represent officers' lives lost to suicide across the country — a display that will remain through September, which is Suicide Awareness Month.

"The issues and challenges that these officers face take a toll on their personal life, their home life and their work life," Soban said. "By providing these services, our hope is to reduce the chances of losing one of our own to suicide and dispel the myth that reaching out for help is a sign of weakness."

She quoted nationwide data reported by Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit, that shows 168 law enforcement deaths by suicide in 2017, followed by 172 in 2018 and 228 in 2019. In 2020-2021, 632 officers died by suicide across the United States, Soban said.

"Mental health is real. It does not discriminate," Rogers said. "It is important that when you find yourself in a place, to reach out and talk to someone to help you get through. It's also important that people recognize those that are around them to help them get through."

Ellison and Soban said the stresses are greater on officers in recent years because of multiple factors including staffing issues, working longer hours, social and political unrest, increased danger, body-worn cameras and critical incidents.

"I think more agencies are realizing this type of service is needed," Soban said, noting that officers are particularly skilled at compartmentalizing issues that they should be talking about with someone.

Debra Mack, director of the Guilford County Behavioral Health Center, attended the news conference and emphasized the importance of open access to mental health resources.

"We help you get to the right door" of needed services, Mack said of the county's partnerships with agencies like the sheriff's office.

She encourages anyone in need to call or text the free 988 suicide and crisis lifeline 24/7 to communicate confidentially with trained crisis counselors. That can be for someone having thoughts of suicide; mental health or substance abuse crisis; or any other kind of emotional distress, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Soban credited Rogers with making mental health a priority.

"It starts at the top of an organization," Soban said. "Sheriff Rogers has been wonderful about supporting us and funding this work."

Rogers said Soban and Ellison have "made a world of a difference" in his life and many others who work at the sheriff's office. Ellison, the office's behavioral health coordinator, said she was hired this past October to join Soban to be a full-time resource in support of officers' well-being.

"When we take care of our officers, they can take care of our community," Ellison said.



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