News, Police/Fire

Pain of son’s suicide prompts police officer to push for mental health training

Janice Betz takes a moment to compose herself as she speaks about her son, David, who committed suicide in 2017. Betz and her family are among a group of other first responders who are pushing for mandatory training for all police to focus on mental health and the concerns about suicide. (Spenser R. Hasak)

LYNN — More police officers die by suicide than homicide and it’s a statistic Lynn resident Dave Betz knows all too well.

In 2016, the Chelsea Police lieutenant worked with an officer named Rob Longo, who died by suicide, the morning after the funeral of a peer who died in a motorcycle crash. Less than a year later, Betz’s first-born son, David Kevin Betz III, who was a year away from following in his law enforcement footsteps and becoming a full-time police officer, shot himself. 

“Suicide is an epidemic,” said Betz. “We need to address it head on and give it the just due we think we have to as a society. That’s when it’s going to be more recognized and less stigmatized by people. Guys will be able to come forward and say ‘I may have a problem.'”

It was a cold February morning in 2017 when Betz said he got two unexpected calls. One was from a number he didn’t recognize, so he didn’t answer, and the second was from someone at his station. He was confused about the work call, he added, given he wasn’t on-call that day. When he answered, a coworker told him his son didn’t show up to work and his employers were looking for him.

“As soon as I got that phone call, I knew it was troubling because that was uncharacteristic of David,” he said. “I called him, he didn’t answer. I texted him and went into his room and he wasn’t there. His car wasn’t out front, so I went into parent/cop mode and called him again, but there was still no answer.”

Betz got into his car and began driving around aimlessly in search of his son, he said. He tried to track his phone and identify his location, but it was to no avail.

“I didn’t even know where I was going when I got in my car,” he said. “I just know he religiously went three places: home, work and the gym. I started driving to his gym, I just didn’t know it. Just as I got to the front of Latitude on Route 1, I could see his car in the back. And I knew it wasn’t good.”

Betz, his wife Janice, and his two children Kayla and Cameron continue to mourn the loss of their son and brother every single day, he said. 

Soon after his son’s death, Betz was contacted by Janice McCarthy, an Andover resident whose husband Paul, a former captain in the state police, died by suicide with his own gun in 2006. Betz said she told him about a proposed bill that she was working on with former State Rep. Jim Lyons (R-Andover) that would require training in law enforcement agencies across the state for mental health wellness and suicide prevention.

They began working with Karen Solomon, the woman who founded Blue H.E.L.P in an effort to create awareness about the staggering number of law enforcement suicides. The organization tracks police suicides across the country in order to provide statistics.

The initial bill didn’t pass, said Betz, but that didn’t stop their efforts.

“There have been at least 124 cop suicides across the country this year,” said Betz. “The New York City Police Department has had nine this year alone, and Chicago is close behind.” 

“Something has to be done,” said Janice Betz. “No family deserves to walk this road … It’s a lonely, lonely road. I wish I could say we’re OK for what OK is now. We are breathing, we are here, but our family will never be the same.”

Last month, Betz, along with several other law enforcement families who lost a loved one to suicide, lobbied at the State House in support of a new bill proposed by State Rep. Paul Tucker (D-Salem), a former Salem police chief, and State Rep. Timothy Whelan (R-Brewster), a former State Police sergeant. 

The proposed bill is described as an act to provide for mental wellness training for police officers. If passed, it will mandate two hours of training in police academy to look for signs of cumulative post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is what occurs when there’s an accumulation of a series of events officers respond to with dead or wounded people or other triggers that eventually causes them to suffer extreme emotional duress or hardship, said Whelan. In many cases, it leads to people deciding they don’t want to continue with their lives, he added.

“Paul and I have both lost too many friends who took their lives over the course of our careers,” said Whelan. “We have a generation of officers that are tired of going to bury their friends and tired of standing up and saying: ‘We need help, mental health support, and a break’ … 25 years ago on the job, you’d go on a bad call and you just couldn’t talk about it. We are finally recognizing that part of the job causes extreme mental health problems. We need to teach officers to recognize the symptoms and teach them to get help.”

The negative stigmas that surround suicide and the fear of being labeled as weak are the reasons officers don’t talk about those triggering bad calls, Betz said. “Macho-ism” still exists, he said, and that’s why police officers go to work and put on a front or are told to “Suck it up” because that’s “part of the job.”

“That’s the kind of thing that was always the mentality,” said Betz. “When the culture changes from the ground level up, which is what we are trying to do now with this bill, then this can become more recognized and guys can realize instead of taking a sick day because you’re sick, you can take a mental health day because you need a break.” 

The purpose behind the bill, said Whelan, is to make sure help is available for officers who need it and to make sure society becomes aware of the traumas those in law enforcement are bottling up and bringing home every day. With the right training, officers will be able to recognize the signs of cumulative PTSD and will not only be able to seek help for themselves, but be able to push their peers to get help.

Next steps for the bill, according to Whelan, include facing consideration at the front of the House, but only if it is voted on favorably by the current committee it was reported to. He said he feels very confident the bill will get support from Governor Charlie Baker.

“David would always be an advocate for somebody else first, so now this is my platform to be an advocate for him and to live on his career,” said Betz. “I want to let other cops know, for my son and the other cops that have gone before him, they can take that extra second to think or to call somebody and ask for help, and that goes for anybody anywhere, regardless of what they are suffering from or what they think they are suffering from … As cops, we’ve learned to say we wear body armour, but that armour doesn’t deflect the things that we see every single day.”

If you or a person you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention lists a number of warning signs for suicide, including:

 

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

 

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide, the AFSP recommends you take these steps:

 

  • Do not leave the person alone.
  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.
  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).
  • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.

 

 

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