The following is a slightly edited article I wrote for the newspaper, The Indian Express. I was published as part of a series on mental illness. This article first ran on September 3, 2014. I continue to fight.
Visit The Indian Express at indianexpress.com.
By Jim Russell
My name is Jim Russell. I have been in law enforcement in Florida for over 21 years. I have a mental illness. I have major depressive disorder, also known as MDD.
Those things are not supposed to go together. A police officer is supposed to be in control at all times, and must in all circumstances, be a person trained and equipped to work with and interact effectively with the mentally ill, not be one of the mentally ill. That is the supposition, anyway, and it is completely wrong. And unfortunately, this belief is what causes many officers to avoid seeking help, and ultimately die by suicide.
When I started my career, little did I know that this fact would become a driving force in my life, not merely as a cause, but as a very personal purpose. Now, when I began my law enforcement career in 1993, I had no idea that I was already experiencing symptoms of MDD. In fact, looking back at my early years, I likely was ill at 16 or 17 years old, as my artwork dating to this period was often very emotional and dark. Not shocking, but it often seemed to center on the expression of anguished emotions through twisted depictions of human forms. When I began at Florida State University as a freshman fine arts major in 1988, these expressive paintings were the center of my work, and additionally, I was prolific at writing many poems that were zeroed in on themes such as loneliness, isolation, and emotional pain. At the time, I had no idea that I was probably expressing myself through a personal form of art therapy, and I thought I was just being creative. But now, it was readily apparent that I was a young man suffering from depression. Even at the time, I often had thoughts of inadequacy and prolonged melancholy, but they seemed to pass, and I wrote them off as artistic angst.
Into my fledgling police career, I continued my artwork, poetry, and would often immerse myself in music whenever I had a bout with feeling bad. At the time, it wasn’t crippling, but I knew that there were times I had trouble snapping out of a deep emotional pit. Eventually, I would recover, and being young and active seemed to keep things at bay, but I was becoming aware that what I was experiencing was not necessarily normal.
Naturally, being undiagnosed and cruising forward in life, I was completely uneducated about how MDD can develop and actually worsen if not treated. Years passed, and I began to notice, ever so little, that the “dark times” would arrive more often and when they did, they would stay a little longer. What may have been before perhaps two periods per year of a depressed state, became three, then four. I was married in 1999 and these continued, but then in about 2008, depression stepped everything up a notch. A big notch.
To this day I don’t know if there was a specific trigger, or if it was the impact of years of police work, or maybe a biological turn, but my depressive periods began to come six or more times a year, and they would stay for three and four weeks. I began to notice that I would actually know when they were coming, and I’d know when they were about over. What’s more, I started to become irritable, snappy, impatient, and my cognition began to suffer. I started to withdraw from friends and family and become more and more isolated. My career was for all practical purposes successful. I was being regularly promoted, enjoying enhanced responsibilities, and my personnel file had no adverse actions at all. On the exterior, I was a very successful cop. On the inside, I was spiraling, and even then, I didn’t know what was happening to me.
Then, things got worse. My marriage started to crumble, not due to the depression, but it certainly didn’t help. My wife and I were simply growing apart, and were developing into two very different people; people too different from the day we got married. We had a young son together, and suddenly my life seemed to be coming unglued. My world was coming down, I was fearful of losing my child, and I felt that suddenly my life was a failure. As far as I was concerned I failed my marriage, my child, and myself. My depression by now was full-blown, and was extremely serious. Looking back on it, I do not think the dissolution of my marriage caused it to worsen, but I think the worsening depression was running side by side of the dying marriage. I was now chronically in a very, very deep pit, becoming focused on thoughts of death, worthlessness, hopelessness, and pain, both mental and physical. As I looked at what options I had in life, there, on the table, was suicide. For me, it had become a viable option, and I began considering how, and when I might do it.
Work, incidentally was going well. I had become an expert at masking my mental state and as far as anyone at the station was concerned, I was fine. In fact, I was still undiagnosed and I still didn’t consider myself mentally ill. I was just going through a rough patch. Unrelated to my personal state, I was in the process of developing suicide prevention strategies at the university where I worked. We had experienced some student suicides and knew that we needed to make suicide prevention a priority with the police department. One day, I met with a very renowned suicidologist from the school to discuss concepts surrounding suicide and mental health to assist me with the development of programming for the police department.
As we talked, he discussed the signs and symptoms of suicide, and as he went on, suddenly it dawned on me that he was discussing exactly the way I felt. It was as if he was describing me personally. I continued to nod and take notes as he then compared mental illness and signs of suicide as similar to any other illness.
He said that like many other illnesses, people can be treated and live lives more fully, but untreated, the ultimate results can be fatal. At that moment, I realized that I needed help and that I could be helped, and that it was okay to seek help. My life changed in that moment, and the doctor merely there to assist and educate me had unknowingly just saved my life.
I went to my doctor. Just my regular old family physician to see what was going on. I talked to her about my history, thoughts, and what was happening, and we went down a checklist of symptoms. Of about twelve symptoms, I believe I had at least eleven checked off. It was clear, I had major depression. While I didn’t like the fact that now I was officially a mentally ill person, the feeling wasn’t a concern. Rather, it was relief. I had a face and a name to put on what was happening to me, and a course of treatment. I began taking an anti-depressant, and integrating various therapies to help me deal with my new found and life-long friend. When the treatments began to take effect, I realized that for the first time in more than 20 years, I actually knew what being mentally pain-free felt like. It was a good feeling. I had another problem though. I was a cop with a mental illness and I was very concerned with how this might impact my career. But, I had a responsibility to my department and my supervisor, so I needed to tell him.
As I was the deputy chief of police, my boss was the chief himself, so I set up a meeting. I sat down in the chief’s office and told him. I told him everything. He listened intently, then immediately told me that the Department was there to support me all the way. Then he said, “Now, don’t we have some police work to do?” I was relieved, but not surprised by the chief’s response. He has always been a very supportive leader and always put his people first. I didn’t have to worry about my job, just controlling my affliction.
Over the next two years, I learned to live with my disease, and gained better and better coping skills regarding how to live with it. I also learned that I was not alone, and that unbeknownst to me, many of my colleagues in law enforcement, and probably some at my own agency, suffered with mental illness. That is when I made another big decision in my life – I would come out to my entire department and tell them my story. I would tell them so they know that if any of them were suffering, they would not need to suffer in silence, and that there was treatment, and hope. I knew that I did not want to stand over the grave of an officer who had taken his or her life because they were too afraid to seek help. I told myself that if I truly loved the people I worked with, I would tell them.
So, I did. In February, 2012 at our departmental meeting, I told every officer, dispatcher, and non-sworn employee my story. The response was overwhelmingly positive and after the meeting, a half-dozen employees approached me to personally thank me for coming out, and they privately shared their stories with me. I like to think that starting that day, the department became one more place where stigma was defeated and employees were in a safe place when it came to seeking help.
Since then, I have become a very outspoken advocate for eliminating the stigma regarding mental illness, and to encourage help-seeking. I certainly am not a clinician, but I have devoted myself to sharing my story to give people hope that there is help and it is okay to get treatment to feel better.