Letters to the Editor

Are we making it harder to prevent suicide?

Richland County deputy commits suicide in patrol car while on duty

Richland County sheriff's deputy Derek Fish killed himself with his weapon in his patrol car after his shift Friday, July 28, 2017, Sheriff Leon Lott announced Monday.
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Richland County sheriff's deputy Derek Fish killed himself with his weapon in his patrol car after his shift Friday, July 28, 2017, Sheriff Leon Lott announced Monday.

The tragic suicide of Richland County Deputy Derek “Nemo” Fish brings to light a horrible statistic: More police officers die by suicide than in the line of duty.

According to Sheriff Leon Lott, Fish left no note. It had been an ordinary shift. He had no significant traumas or life changes.

Yet he is dead.

Having spent most of my professional life working as a clinical social worker in mental health, I’ve seen many people struggle with depression. I’ve lost clients to suicide. It is always devastating. It’s hard to accept that mental illness is sometimes fatal. What’s even harder to accept is that it often doesn’t need to be.

Related: Richland deputy commits suicide in patrol car while on duty

I didn’t know Deputy Fish. I don’t know what happened in his mind to lead to this final act. What I know about suicide is this: When a person struggles with depression, there are moments that are unbearable. The world feels bleak and hopeless; the pain inside becomes a black hole trying to suck you in. My job as a therapist was to help my clients bear that unbearable moment. To think beyond it. To come out on the other side with the skills and supports to move forward with their lives. Many people do recover from depression and live meaningful, productive lives.

Did Deputy Fish seek help? And if not, why not? Perhaps it was shame.

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Carla Damron file photo

As a culture, we treat depression unlike other illnesses. We treat emotional problems as a sign of weakness, which only makes it harder for people to ask for help. Imagine telling a heart attack victim that he should “get over it,” or a terminal cancer patient that she would feel better if she stopped wallowing in bed.

Yet this is how we sometimes treat people struggling with mental health problems.

Sheriff Lott asked that we talk about suicide, that we not keep feelings of depression or desperation in the shadows. I commend him for this, and I think that’s an excellent way to honor Deputy Fish’s memory.

It also might help if we would make care more accessible. While the state Department of Mental Health has clinics throughout the state, accessing care is not always easy. Staff shortages, a lack of hospital beds and the overall cost of treatment are impediments to people needing care.

It’s hard enough enough to come out of the shadows and ask for help. The cost, accessibility and capacity for treatment shouldn’t be another barrier.

Carla Damron

Executive Director, S.C. Chapter, National Association of Social Workers

Columbia

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