Never Show Weakness
When Police Stay Silent About Stress, The Results Can Be Deadly
Editor’s Note: Law enforcers are sworn to serve and protect. But who’s serving and protecting them—from silent menaces like mental illness? Police officers and other public safety personnel are taught that weakness, any weakness, could put their lives, and the lives of others, at risk on the job. And so they stay silent, and undiagnosed, for fear of being stigmatized and potentially losing their careers.
Yet every year in the U.S., more police officers die by suicide than in the line of duty.
In the new book Public Safety Suicide: The Human Dimension, co-author Mary Van Haute tells the story of Bolingbrook, Illinois police officer Chris Prochut. Prochut began his career with the department right out of high school in 1991 and rose to Commander, the third highest rank in the agency. He was also the public face of the department, serving as its public information and media relations liaison.
Yet by the late 2000s, the stressors of the job began to take a toll on Prochut. The Bolingbrook Police Department was harshly criticized for its handling of a notorious missing persons case that garnered national attention—the mysterious disappearance involving Stacy Peterson, the fourth wife of Sgt. Drew Peterson. The pressure of the media scrutiny filled Prochut with increasing levels of frustration and anxiety—that he’d never before experienced.
In the following excerpts, Van Haute takes us step by step through Prochut’s worsening condition—a frightening downward spiral that cost him his law enforcement career, and nearly his life.
* * * * * *
During this time Chris had trouble sleeping. He first attributed it to the long 12-hour days spent at work. He would often awake at exactly 1:13 a.m., his mind racing with what he perceived as 40,000 things and he could not fall back asleep for hours. He would curse the alarm clock.
In his sleepless nights, he’d peruse the Internet for tidbits about the Peterson case. He hated his bedroom. He’d stare out the window at cold, barren streets. He cursed a snowplow driver early one morning for working too slowly in the cul-de-sac where he lived.
When he did awake for work, the Peterson case was immediately on his mind throwing him into a highly agitated state. Why was he not able to handle this case as he did all the other high-profile cases of the past? How could he prevent further damage to the image of the department he loved? How could he stop this inappropriate, inaccurate reporting and mockery of Bolingbrook Police Department?
Irritability became the norm as soon as his morning alarm went off. What little sleep he got was fitful. Anger was omnipresent. He could not focus on family activities hobbies, or other work tasks as the media assignment engulfed him.
He quickly became physically and emotionally withdrawn developing a daily coping mechanism of coming home, lying in bed, and staring at the ceiling fan. If he could just turn off his brain, maybe he could be himself again.
* * * * * *
He took down photos of his family in his office since he believed they would be happier without him in their life. They were a reminder of his perceived failure in life.
For a charismatic person who loved his family, this constant disdain for life became unbearable. For someone who loved his job and excelled in his career, this inability to enjoy work was incomprehensible. For someone who was educated and experienced in police work, especially as a liaison to the public and the media, the inability to apply his skills to the Peterson case was torturous. For someone in excellent physical shape (he had just trained and competed in the Chicago marathon), the inability to eat, sleep, or exercise was physically exhausting.
Chris continued to compare the case against his experiences in law enforcement. No matter how critical or high profile the case, he handled it with ease. None of them brought on the anxiety, sleeplessness, and emotional tidal waves he was now experiencing. Chris had lived his life confident that precedent had been set; he could handle anything that came his way on or off the job. Frustration at his inability to deal with this incident as he did with previous cases exacerbated his emotional condition.
Isolation became the norm. Everyone he encountered became untrustworthy and by Chris’ view of the world, no one could help him. He had to fix this—the loss of control at the job he loved and his declining physical and mental state—by himself.
* * * * * *
For the last three months, Jenny watched painfully as her loving, high profile husband evolved into an angry man who continued to crawl inside himself. She became the equalizer between him and his family. She shielded him from further harm and savored any moment that returned to normalcy in the life she knew with him before this rapid descent.
Those moments were sporadic, unpredictable and unreliable. Like the time when Chris called her from work in good spirits and was eager to get home for dinner. He said he would stop and pick up some steaks to put on the grill. They’d spend the evening together uninterrupted by the current events. As Chris recalls that evening, he was eager to get home, but by the time he opened the door handle of his vehicle, he wanted to rip it off.
Anger engulfed him for no apparent reason. He drove home panicked and confused. It was a time he felt capable of acting on his suicidal thoughts that began in January 2008. He envisioned what would happen if he sped up and drove his car into a telephone pole along his usual route home.
The dinner plans and quiet night together did not come to fruition. With Jenny’s compassionate courage, though, she was able to persuade him to see a counselor. Chris agreed to do it as a birthday gift to her. It was February 2008.
In the same way that Chris thought he was fooling his coworkers and family, he entered into the counseling session convinced he could fool his therapist. His edgy, aloof nature, though, was nothing new to his experienced therapist. The therapist was able to get by the defensive attitude that clearly told him he didn’t know anything about police work and that he couldn’t help him either.
He attended to the mental health issue at hand—displaced inappropriate anger. He developed rapport with Chris and was the first to diagnose and treat him for depression. Chris followed his regime including reading several books that the therapist recommended for him. He had also begun reading a book he purchased two years ago and never opened, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement.
* * * * * *
In spite of outward appearances, Chris continued to fight urges of mania and anger. He now had a better understanding of how the events surrounding the Drew Peterson case had affected him, but he remained in search of better control on the job and in his personal life. His time in therapy had been impactful and effective. This intervention provided Chris with enough reprieve from the chaos that he felt strong enough to think, once again, that he could do this on his own.
Yet he continued to perceive himself as a failure and hopeless when waves of mania or anger came over him. Suicidal thoughts resurfaced.
* * * * * *
Everyone on the department was struggling with the pressure of the Drew Peterson case. It was the chief’s intent to help his staff work through the complicated grief of this unusual case as well as provide them with tools for surviving the assault on the department’s image. Realizing that this type of support was already scheduled for the staff on Thursday, May 1, Chris set the date for his death—Wednesday, April 30.
In the next few weeks, Chris perused old cases and reports related to suicide. He studied photos. He read the report on a former battalion chief for the Bolingbrook Fire department who shot himself in the head. Chris surmised that he knew how to get the job done swiftly and efficiently. Chris would do the same. To minimize the chance of being rescued and to ensure that none of his coworkers would have to work the scene, he chose the spot. It was along a running path in Plainfield, Illinois, the same city where he and Jenny were married. It was a route he had traveled many times in his young, healthy life. He was acutely aware of how remote the area was and believed no one would see him, hear the gunshot, or be able to save him if he did not die instantly.
On his 35th birthday, Saturday April 12, 2008, Chris flushed his medications down the toilet. An unhealthy mind was convincing him that talk therapy and medication didn’t work. He was strengthened in his belief that there were no more options for help. Convinced he could do it alone and tired of the side effects, he considered this his birthday present to himself.
Two days later, Chris cleaned out his office at work. He took down any last remnants of icons that reflected his success, his love for his family, or his importance at the department. Several people stopped by with piqued interest and were dismissed by Chris. He thought they believed him when he said he was spring-cleaning.
After work the next day, he drove to his psychiatrist’s office and dropped off a note; he then drove to his therapist’s office and dropped off a note along with several books given to him by his therapist. On April 17, the command staff met to review the blueprints for a new addition to the police department scheduled to start the following year. The chief asked Chris what he wanted in his new office. He complied with trite remarks thinking this would satisfy the chief. His mind kept repeating that it didn’t matter because he would not be around to enjoy this new perk.
Later that day, his psychiatrist called his cell phone and began questioning him as to why he chose to stop treatment. Frustrated that she couldn’t see what he thought was obvious, he firmly told her “I’m fine” and that he was going to handle it on his own. She asked if she could talk with Jenny; Chris said yes. He was cautious and discerning with his reply. He knew if he answered no, it might appear he was hiding something and it would raise suspicion. Answering yes was supposed to reinforce that he was doing well and had nothing to hide.
Thus began a life-saving intervention penetrating Chris’ illusion that no one knew of his plans and no one could help him.
That night when Chris returned home from work, he was filled with paranoia about the potential of being whisked away to a mental health facility as a result of a possible conversation between Jenny and his psychiatrist. Jenny cautiously greeted him and mustered compassionate courage to confront him about the events of the last couple days.
Over dinner in a nonthreatening manner, she began talking about the future. She brought up the idea of taking an Alaskan cruise to celebrate their tenth anniversary. She tossed around a few dates hoping to entice his interest. Chris was indignant. Celebrating was the last thing on his mind, and he replied by telling her he wouldn’t be around on the days she proposed. She wanted to believe this was because he had to work, but she feared it was a prophetic statement about his death.
Partly to get away from the madness and partly to enjoy some sense of normalcy, Jenny left the house for a scheduled softball practice. As she left, Chris handed her the phone number of his psychiatrist telling her that earlier in the day he had given permission for the psychiatrist to talk with Jenny. Another ambiguous cry for help from a man who didn’t want to die, but couldn’t live life as he knew it any longer.
Jenny never made it to the practice. A brief but intense conversation with the psychiatrist enlightened her as to the seriousness of the situation. The therapist felt that Chris was not actively suicidal and advised Jenny to call her if she saw the risk elevate. This confirmed Jenny’s fear that Chris was mastering a facade with his psychiatrist. She made more calls to resources, family, and the department, building momentum for the job she had to do to save his life.
When she returned home, she found Chris extremely agitated. She interrogated him about the things she had learned—dumping his medications and returning books to the therapist. Chris tried to placate her and push her away with banal responses to her questions. She persisted, demanding to know more about the intent behind these actions.
He continued to lie, hoping to protect himself and the job he loved by keeping his suicide plans to himself. He told Jenny that he knew exactly what to do if “the white coats” came to the house tonight.
Jenny saw through the deception and took the risk of breaking the silence about suicide. She asked him if he was going to kill himself. Chris shouted back that he knew everyone would be better off without him. In tears, she told him if he killed himself, she would do the same. She pressed on and asked him who would take care of the kids if they were both gone?
His reply shed light into the depth of his suicide plan. Weakened and tired, his response included reference to how he had made accommodations for that in a will. Jenny knew they had not made a will together. He must have done it on his own; another element in the suicide plan.
Exhausted from pleading with him, Jenny became physically ill. She had to be surreptitious in getting help for this life-saving intervention. She gave Chris a task—get the kids ready for bed. She knew he wouldn’t stray from the kids while they were in the tub.
She walked away and secretly began a series of calls to Chris’ sister, their pastor, and his psychiatrist. She whispered to the psychiatrist the things she had learned about the will that he had prepared and his comments about running from the “white coats.”
Taking stock in Jenny’s observations, the psychiatrist responded to the elevated risk by saying she would call Bolingbrook Police Department dispatch. Jenny begged her not to say anything to dispatch, but to call the deputy chief directly. It was agreed; the call to dispatch could exacerbate the situation.
* * * * * *
The chief assured him that for as long as he was chief of the Bolingbrook police department, there would be no disciplinary action, and he would do whatever he could to ensure Chris didn’t lose his job. Promises and assurances that gave Chris hope. He reluctantly left the house escorted by his colleagues who took him via rescue squad to the hospital. It was as low profile as possible to avoid disrupting his neighbors or worse yet, attracting the media. However, everyone at Bolingbrook Police Department would know about it within hours.
By midnight, Chris found himself in a locked, padded room at the hospital emergency department.
* * * * * *
Later that afternoon, a new medication regime was started based on a new diagnosis: bipolar disorder. He experienced immediate relief from the obsession with planning his suicide. By that evening, he felt a wave of normalcy return to his life that he had not experienced in months.
* * * * * *
Chris lost his firearms owner identification (FOID) card for the State of Illinois by definition of the law. Section 1 of the Firearms Owners Identification Act defines who is prohibited from owning a gun in the State of Illinois. Chris met the criteria in several subsections, but the hospital admission that night was the definitive action that now prohibited him from owning the one tool he must have to return to police work.
* * * * * *
After considering all his options for further appeals, Chris chose not to exacerbate the situation or risk compromising his road to good health. He had also exhausted his financial resources. With the clarity and confidence of a sound mind, he weighed the risks and benefits of continuing the fight.
Working as a police officer with the Bolingbrook Police Department was a life-long dream that began when he was only ten years old. Yet just ten years into his dream, he was on the brink of walking away in order to spare his health and his family further harm.
On May 1, 2009, Chris resigned from the Bolingbrook Police Department after learning that he would be charged with internal affair violations and most likely dismissed from the police department because he could not carry a firearm in the state of Illinois. The dream was over.
He left behind all aspirations of returning to the work he loved with the department he held in the highest esteem.
* * * * * *
Editor’s Note: In 2010, Prochut took a job in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin with a major department store corporate office as their chief E-commerce investigator. He and his family moved from Bolingbrook and settled in Hartford, Wisconsin.
* * * * * *
The executive leadership at the department store chain immediately embraced Chris. His experience and education were precisely what they desired in the position. They knew of the trial he had recently experienced and saw it as an asset to the workplace.
As Chris became acquainted with organizations such as Bring Change 2 Mind, a nonprofit with the mission to end the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness, the department store partnered with him. They supported his cause by promoting mental health awareness campaigns, giving him autonomy, and supporting his volunteer opportunities.
One morning, Chris read an article in a local newspaper about a tragedy at the Hartford Police Department. An 18-year veteran of the department had died by suicide on May 30, just three months before Chris moved to the area. Breathless at the parallels in this story and Chris’ life, he felt compelled to reach out to the agency.
He set aside time to e-mail the chief, introducing himself and briefly describing his journey. The grieving and gracious chief was appreciative. He directed Chris to an organization that assisted Hartford Police Department at the time of their officer’s death.
The Wisconsin Law Enforcement Death Response (LEDR) team is comprised of law enforcement professionals specializing in traumatic incidents and death. They respond by invitation of the department after an incident, and volunteer their time and expertise during a critical time. By connecting Chris with this organization, Chris now added depth and width to the path he was traveling on this new journey.
He was invited to participate in training events. He became active in CIT officer training, a one-week mental health course sponsored by NAMI, that builds partnerships between law enforcement, mental health providers, and family members of the mentally ill. The unique nature of his professional and life experience gave him a perspective that could not be replicated. His training events proliferated, and he has become a renowned speaker highly coveted in the trending field of wellness, mental health, and suicide prevention within law enforcement.
* * * * * *
Currently, Chris is maintaining his full-time job, volunteering for Bring Change 2 Mind, and attending to a robust speaking schedule. Jenny monitors the pace of travel on this new path.
Chris has not lost his personal attributes that contribute to success at work. Yet with therapy, he remains healthy. He works diligently to manage the mania associated with his mental illness, keeping it in check and using it to his advantage.
* * * * * *
You can read more about Chris Prochut’s story in Public Safety Suicide: The Human Dimension. It’s available through the publisher’s website, www.ccthomas.com or through Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Public-Safety-Suicide-Human-Dimension/dp/0398081344.
Mary VanHaute is a coordinator and trainer with the St. Petersburg College Center for Public Safety Innovation in St. Petersburg Florida. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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