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Police officers are much more likely to die by suicide than they are to be killed in the line of duty — however, that isn’t the common understanding. While society works hard to prevent law enforcement fatalities, mental health and suicide often remain overlooked. Why is that?
Today’s guest, a 13-year law enforcement veteran, shares his story of being involved in a fatal shooting and how that experience led him to have untreated PTSD for years. Eventually, it got to the point where he almost ended his life. Constable Jefferson shares how he was able to move past that, and how he believes law enforcement could better protect him and his fellow officers.
James Jefferson is a 13-year police service veteran and the wellness coordinator officer with the Greater Sudbury Police Service. Jefferson specializes in mental health, peer to peer support, and member outreach, along with physical fitness and nutrition.
After working assignments in uniform patrol and the drug enforcement unit; being involved in a fatal shooting and working undercover; Jefferson endured the fallout of PTSD. After years of surviving, he made the decision to thrive and use his experiences to gain perspective on life and fight to overcome post-traumatic stress. Jefferson has transformed his trauma into purpose in educating and inspiring others to persevere and overcome the challenges that embody the responsibility and psychological hardships of wearing the badge.
Jefferson graduated from Laurentian University with a BA in Law & Justice & Psychology. He’s a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach as well as a public speaker and mental health advocate. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Instagram.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of the Inside Mental Health podcast, formerly The Psych Central Podcast. I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and I want to thank our sponsor, Better Help. You can save 10% and get a week free by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. Calling in to the show today we have James Jefferson. Constable Jefferson is a 13-year police service veteran and the wellness coordinator officer with the Greater Sudbury Police Service. James specializes in mental health, peer to peer support and member outreach. James holds a B.A. in Law and Justice in Psychology and is a certified personal trainer, nutrition coach, as well as a public speaker and mental health advocate. James, welcome to the show.
Constable James Jefferson: Thank you very much. It’s a privilege to be here with you today.
Gabe Howard: James, when it comes to policing, society is extremely worried about officers being killed in the line of duty. We picture neighborhoods turned into war zones and firefights and, well, we picture everything that we’ve seen on television. The reality, however, is that per the FBI and other independent law enforcement sources, more officers have died by suicide than homicide in the last three years of record. And no one seems to be talking about it. And that is why I wanted to have you on the show. You have firsthand experience with both. Your life was in danger. You were involved in a fatal shooting while working undercover. But then you suffered the effects of PTSD and trauma and suicidal thoughts. And for a while at least, you had to handle this largely alone. Looking back, do you feel that society did enough to respond to your mental health needs in the wake of the on-duty fatality?
Constable James Jefferson: I would say back then it was a very different culture, people weren’t as aware of mental health, especially in policing. And for myself, I can tell you that I really was alone in this endeavor. I did reach out to peers here and there. But truth be told, there was very little support. And that’s just basically where our profession was at that point in time. I was left on my own. And after the formality aspects of the paperwork and the internal investigation and getting myself back to work after the shooting, it was zero follow up since then. And I struggled more and more every single day and walking this journey alone.
Gabe Howard: You mentioned that’s where the culture was back then, how long ago was this?
Constable James Jefferson: 2010, and I can tell you at that point in time, I didn’t know anything really about mental health. I didn’t know what PTSD was. And I was completely ignorant to the fact that this profession really takes a toll on how we think and how we feel.
Gabe Howard: It seems like you’re indicating that over the next 11 years that it would get better. Is that true? Has it gotten better?
Constable James Jefferson: It was a slow progression. There was training throughout the years that took within my service. It really didn’t have the teeth that it needed to to get the point across on how prevalent mental health is and trauma within policing and first responders in general. But as time went and myself coming back in the role that I’m doing now, it’s people like me that own their trauma that can be transparent and speak about what they’ve gone through. Because one of the things I learned the most is vulnerability creates vulnerability. And any time I speak about my trauma, I speak about my thoughts on suicide or my attempt or just the dark abyss that trauma leads you through, it helps other people really come out and express what they’re going through and reach out for help and take that proactive approach. Right now, I think we’re really at the forefront of the change within our profession and the de-stigmatization of trauma.
Gabe Howard: James, I discovered your story on OC87 Recovery Diaries, you wrote an article called Connected Through Trauma: A Police Officer’s Story of PTSD, Suicidality, and Hope. And one of the quotes that really caught my attention was, “I was on surveillance detail when I made the decision to end my life. I can still feel the cold muzzle pressed against my temple as I unloaded my gun, put it to my head and squeezed the trigger. I then loaded the gun and slowly held it to the side of my head.” What was going on in those moments and how did you get to that place? You’re a police officer. It seems like you should have gotten support before it got there. And I just want to believe that our law enforcement officers have more support than being in this situation and that reading what you wrote just really impacted me in a very visceral way.
Constable James Jefferson: Well, for me, it was that steady progression of the trauma. It crept up on me in a way that I was not prepared for and before I knew it, I was in the throes of PTSD and it is a terrifying dark place to be. Support would have been there if I asked for it and if I knew completely what it is that I needed. But I was oblivious to trauma because I was not educated and I did not know what PTSD was as I was experiencing it. If you really believe your trauma, your hardship is going to change with the passing season, you’re naive. And the more you suppress it, which is what I did year after year and I just buried myself in work. It grew and it amplified and it took on a life of its own and then finding myself in that plain-clothes vehicle, making that decision to end my life. That was years of progression that I felt that I could not stop, that this was the be-all and end-all of who I was. And I felt powerless to stop then. The only way out for me at that time was suicide. I felt like a burden to my family. I felt like a fraud to myself, living with this daily facade. I did not think that there was any way possible that I could overcome post-traumatic stress and suicide being the exit strategy, unfortunately, that’s very prevalent within our profession.
Gabe Howard: What saved you in that moment?
Constable James Jefferson: Hands down my daughter. I could not imagine putting trauma within her life, and that’s what would have happened. My wife lost her father at a young age, not a suicide, but it was a horrific accident. And I saw the pain still live within her. I see the pain living within my mother-in-law. And this is 30 years after the fact and then having my daughter live the same experience, my wife live with the same experience, I couldn’t imagine putting that hurt in their lives. And anyone with trauma can truly attest that they would not wish this on anybody because losing control of your own mind is one of the most humbling experiences that I can even imagine. And having my daughter live her life, because at the time she was about five or six years old. And one of the big thoughts that I had is she won’t remember who I am. She will remember very, very small memories. But truly, she won’t know me. And how can I leave my little girl on this earth without me?
Gabe Howard: After that experience, what steps did you take to change your narrative, really to get to this point?
Constable James Jefferson: It was a process, it was a roller coaster type process, because there’s so many peaks and valleys. That experience with suicide was so pivotal because that made me make the decision that suicide was not an option. I had to make that step because if you believe suicide is one of your options, then you won’t truly invest in your progress because you have an exit strategy. You can’t have a plan B because it distracts from plan A. So I had to solely focus on progression.
And after that suicide attempt and making that decision, I still continued on and I didn’t do a great job. I still went on years working lots. My home life was in shambles and I just continually got worse. And it wasn’t until I was forced off work. I had a physical injury and I was off for three and a half years in total. But the first two years were my rock bottom and I was losing my marriage, divorce was on the table. I was losing my career. I lost all my friends. I was scared to leave my own home. I had so much anxiety that just opening the door was too much for me and living this way, simply hating the reflection looking back at me in the mirror and knowing that I am on the verge of waking up every day without my wife or my child or not being able to put my daughter to bed every single night. And it was the catalyst that made me pick myself up, dust myself off and tell myself how important it is for me to move forward, not just for me, but for my family. I have no choice. The trauma was not my fault, but it sure was my responsibility to get through this.
Gabe Howard: Now, when you say you had to pick yourself up and dust yourself off, what exactly does that look like?
Constable James Jefferson: Well, the first and most important was simply just making that decision. And like you said earlier, we’re more capable of dying from our own hand than someone else on the street, because we are fueled by the ego in policing and we are so worried about our reputation and what others think of us, or if we get blacklisted and we can’t get promoted because we’ve experienced trauma. We have our priorities out of whack. And I was fortunate to find a doctor. I went to a handful. And that’s why I tell people it’s a trial-and-error process. Not every doctor’s right. It took me a few. And after working with this doctor, I did immersion therapy for a full year every week. I spoke to a chaplain and I experienced the spiritual side of what I was going through with my moral guilt. I made fitness and nutrition a daily habit. I listen to as much positivity as I could in podcasts, inspirational motivational videos. Every day was a work in progress on building myself up better, being conscious of my self-talk and how compassionate I was with myself, that I wasn’t bringing myself down. I was talking myself up and it was doing this every single day for a full year, being immersed and conscious in what I was doing.
Gabe Howard: So far, we’ve talked a lot about how you were in the aftermath of the fatal shooting. How are you now, today, in 2021? What’s life like for you now that you’re, am I allowed to say on the other side of it? How are you feeling now?
Constable James Jefferson: Living in the realm of post-traumatic growth, the novelty never wears off. I wake up every day with this lightness. I can tell you when you’ve woken up for seven, eight years with the weight of depression on your shoulders and anxiety and all of the psychological hardships that encompasses PTSD, when you wake up and you don’t have that, when you can go outside without anxiety, you can strike up conversations. The novelty will never wear off. Even the fact that I’m walking into my police station every single day. I get giddy because there was a point in time that I would have bet anything in my world that I would not be back in the station because my anxiety was so much, I’ve been able to heal my marriage in a way that I never thought was possible. I thought my marriage was over. I thought the seven, eight years of trauma and non stop arguing, there was no coming back from it, but it showed me I was wrong on so many levels because we can still surprise ourselves in life and I was able to turn my whole life around. I was able to create this role within my service. I was able to heal my friendships and I was able to find life again. I’m a huge, huge advocate of the fact that you can get through post-traumatic stress, it takes work, it takes decisive, conscious effort, but it’s possible.
Gabe Howard: We’ll be back in a moment, after we hear from our sponsors.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with Constable James Jefferson discussing untreated trauma in law enforcement. When it comes to policing and when it comes to public safety, one of the things that concerns me as a citizen is you have untreated post-traumatic stress disorder and you’re an active police officer. I would think that that would put both of us in harm’s way. I have to imagine that that could have negative consequences on your ability to be a good police officer.
Constable James Jefferson: In my experience, policing was an escape, policing was an area where I was able to be confident, I knew I was good and what I did and the decisions that I could make were right. I couldn’t make decisions in my personal life, but my professional life, I was always on the ball. But then on the same token, you see people who get themselves in trouble on the job. They make poor choices. And usually if you look back and uncover their career, there have been instances where you can pinpoint trauma, you can pinpoint that accumulated experience of trauma, and that’s why they get themselves to a point where they either don’t care or they make poor decisions and they get themselves in trouble.
Gabe Howard: You’re a huge proponent of police officers and first responders getting the mental health care that they need. Can you talk about why that’s so important?
Constable James Jefferson: Because I think it’s so overlooked. The community really doesn’t see police officers as human. They see the badge; they see the uniform. Police officers as well, they don’t see themselves as human. They believe they are impervious to suffering, that they shouldn’t be experiencing depression, anxiety, things like that. The amount of police officers I’ve seen suffering is so vast. There needs to be support for police and first responders because we work this job for 30 years. And on average, in a career, a police officer will have up to 140 traumatic calls. And that’s not just the regular everyday calls. These are the traumatic calls. These are the deaths. These are the worst that you can absolutely imagine, that humanity is capable of experiencing. And it’s not a matter of if, it’s when. This job is going to catch up to you and you’re going to feel it. It doesn’t have to be debilitating. But this job is going to affect you. And I believe you can’t speak to another police officer who doesn’t have a sight, sound, smell, experience burned in their memory of a call that they took that will be with them until the day that they die. So self-care, proactive self-care is so paramount and to have support systems in place for police officers and first responders are so needed because we are simply human beings. We are human beings who see inhumane things day after day, year after year. And it’s going to catch up. And we have to know that the support is there.
Gabe Howard: I’m a big proponent of CIT, which is Crisis Intervention Team training, it’s where mental health advocates train police officers to be first responders for people living with mental illness. And when I first started, you know, obviously I only saw things through my own eyes, and early on in the first couple of years, I had this general idea of, OK, well, the average police officer doesn’t pull their gun and the average police officer doesn’t get in a shoot-out. You know, most police officers retire. I mean, it was a cavalier attitude toward policing. One day I was talking to a police officer and he said that the hardest thing that ever happened to him is that he became a police officer and he was 20 years old and he was unmarried and he had no children. And then one day he finds himself 30 years old, you know, 10 years later, and he’s married and he has a couple of kids and he responds to a car accident where somebody about his age had unfortunately passed away. And that was the first time that he said it occurred to him that he could just be in a car accident and his children would have no father. This is the kind of trauma that I think society is unaware of when we say, oh, police officers are fine. And to maybe a larger extent, I think that maybe many police officers don’t realize that it’s hurting them. Would you say that’s true? Is that what you’ve seen on your side of the aisle, that police officers don’t realize that they’ve been traumatized by this and therefore they don’t know to seek the help that they need?
Constable James Jefferson: Oh, you’re absolutely right, police in general, we wait until we’re in that chaotic state. We believe that it’s just going to go away. We believe once we hit holidays, once we hit our time off, once we get to our camps or cottages, things like that, it’s going to go away. But it doesn’t. Officers in general, they wait until either their marriage is on the rocks or they’re suffering symptomology on the job and now they’ve got to come up with a plan of action. What do I do? Where do I go? And it’s a terrifying place to be. But a large part of it, we put so much emphasis on what others think of us. It’s not so much what we think of ourselves. It’s our peers, our colleagues, our coworkers. We’re so worried about not being on the same level. We’re so worried about being perceived as a broken toy. And I’ve heard that expression quite often, broken toy. And we don’t want to be really typecast into that role because it’s beneath us, or we feel that it’s beneath us and we feel like we cannot experience true human hardship because we’re not supposed to. But we’ve completely missed the mark on how important it is to make our self-care and our mental health a priority.
Gabe Howard: Constable Jefferson, given what you know now, given all of your experience, everything that you’ve been through and everything that you’ve learned, if you got the promotion of all promotions, you’re now in charge of mental health and law enforcement all over the world, what would you do differently?
Constable James Jefferson: It’s all about knowledge. In the teachings and lectures that I’ve given to the officers in my service, once I talk about my experience, once I talk about true symptomology and I break it down and I put a human touch on it and I force them to ask themselves, because a lot of times we’re so busy life, how often do we stop and really evaluate where we are in life? How we’re thinking, how we’re feeling? We don’t evaluate. And for me to give them this information and force them to stop and evaluate where they’re at and really take notice on their day-to-day life, how’s their relationships? How do they talk to their spouse and their kids? Giving them that sort of education really is what started the process of them being self-transparent and then seeking help. Because after I don’t know how many talks that I’ve given, I’ve had officers directly after come right to me and say what you’ve experienced, I’m going through now. What do I do? To put it in a face and make them see the reality and no longer ignore it. In terms of just policing in general on how to work with the community? Obviously, it’s a skilled job, but you have to really adopt and elevate the skill in talking to people.
Constable James Jefferson: And that was always one of the skills that I’ve had in policing was very seldom, even despite the fact that I’ve been in a fatal shooting, which is very rare in policing. Very seldom have I had to use physical force in my career. And I’ve made a lot of arrests. I’ve made a lot of dynamic arrests. But I was always able to talk to the person. I was always able to either empathize, show compassion or show respect to whomever I’m dealing with. I wasn’t there to judge. If they committed a criminal offense, so be it. I’m not there to judge. I’m just there to enforce it. That doesn’t mean I can’t show them respect as a human being and just being able to have that skill. And that is a lot of the messaging I give with the new officers coming through is just talk to people as a human being. As you would want to be treated. Don’t typecast them, don’t believe they’re only criminals. They are a human that maybe experienced trauma. And when you look at people simply as a human being, you’re going to get that treatment back. And that’s been such a successful element in my career, is just being able to talk to people.
Gabe Howard: James, thank you so much for being honest. I really appreciate you being here, and I’m positive that you’re going to help a lot of people with your work.
Constable James Jefferson: I appreciate that. I’m trying every day one officer at a time, and we’ll just keep going, keep spreading the message.
Gabe Howard: And to all of our listeners, we literally can’t do the show without all of you. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m the author of Mental Illness Is an Asshole, as well as a public speaker. I mean, can you imagine having me at your next event? You can get the book on Amazon or you can get a signed copy of the book for less money over at gabehoward.com. We’ll see everybody next Thursday.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast from Healthline Media. Have a topic or guest suggestion? E-mail us at show@PsychCentral.com. Previous episodes can be found at PsychCentral.com/Show or on your favorite podcast player. Thank you for listening.