- Associated Press - Sunday, October 1, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Karen Fish knows her son had a lot of things in life that he loved, including his job as a Richland County sheriff’s deputy. Knowing that has helped her cope with his suicide nearly two months ago.

“He was doing exactly what he wanted to be doing and wouldn’t have had it any other way,” Fish said of her son, Master Deputy Derek Fish. “I guess that’s what I try to think of. It was too short of a time that we had him, but while he was here he was amazing and brought a lot of joy to other people, and he accomplished so many of his dreams in a very short period of time.”

Fish killed himself July 28 behind the department’s Region 3 headquarters. His family and Sheriff Leon Lott have said the 28-year-old deputy didn’t leave a note and gave no indication he was planning to end his life. He was said to be excited about an upcoming promotion when he died.

“He was on the fast track with his career,” Karen Fish said. “He loved every moment of it and he couldn’t wait for the next chapter to happen. I guess that, too, is why we are left kind of in shock and without answers as to why he did what he did.

“In all appearances, Derek was leading the life he wanted to lead.”

Rarely is a single factor to blame when someone ends their life, according to Helen Pridgen, director of the South Carolina chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“We want an easy answer,” she said. “We want to look at one thing that could have happened because we want cause and effect right away. But usually with suicide, there are layers to it. You have to look at each situation, each person’s history and current health.”

September is National Suicide Prevention Month. In South Carolina, suicide is the 11th leading cause of death, and nearly twice as many people in the Palmetto State die by suicide than by homicide, according to the foundation.

Suicide is the No. 1 killer of law enforcement officers in the United States, according to the International Association of Chief of Police, and experts say officers are more than twice as likely to die by their own hand than be killed in the line of duty.

“This is happening too much,” Karen Fish said. “It’s law enforcement, it’s firefighters, it’s paramedics. They see so much, they do so much and they’re really left with no outlet. Something needs to change.”

Karen Fish, who lives in Canada, said she recently learned about a Canadian documentary called “The Other Side of the Hero,” which examines the emotional toll that emergency response work takes on the men and women in those jobs. She said she might be interested in sharing her son’s story with such a project.

“I just want the story to help,” she said. “I want to do something that will be helpful so that another mother or another brother or another father doesn’t have to have these horrible feelings.”

In a field that values strength and bravery, officers might perceive talking about mental health or seeking help for depression or anxiety as a sign of weakness, according to Eric Skidmore, who manages the S.C. Law Enforcement Assistance Program. Other lawmen think asking for help might put future promotions or the perception of their coworkers at risk.

“These are perceptions that are impediments to officers seeking traditional forms of mental health care,” he said.

The South Carolina legislature last year took a step toward providing better mental health care for officers by approving a proviso for LEAP that provides an additional insurance policy to cover copays, deductibles and other expenses associated with mental health care that aren’t covered by regular insurance.

To cut down on officer suicides, Skidmore said programs and resources like those offered by LEAP, including peer support groups and post-critical incident seminars, need to be more widely available to lawmen.

In announcing Fish’s death - the third Richland County deputy suicide in 20 years and the first since 2007 - Lott said the agency made improvements like adding an in-house psychologist and chaplain service and requiring pre-PTSD training for all officers. Still, more needs to be done, he said at the time.

Since then, the sheriff’s department has received calls and messages from programs across the country offering suggestions for training, treatment, counseling and awareness, Lott said. They are examining the programs to see which ones to implement.

“They’re out there, but people don’t know about them and people don’t talk about them,” Lott said. “That’s where we’re making a big mistake.”

Before law enforcement can develop a solution to suicide in the profession, he said, more chiefs and sheriffs need to admit that it’s a problem. “It’s still not talked about,” he said. “It’s still whispered about and hidden.”

That was why Lott held a news conference to announce Fish’s death and to implore people to “talk about suicide.”

The sheriff is encouraged by the gesture of a class that graduated from the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy a month after Fish’s death. Each graduating class leaves a legacy, he said, and this class decided to raise money for Fish’s family.

“Every one of them in that class knew what happened, talked about it and did something about it,” he said. “That’s a big step right there. Every one of those officers now will go back to their departments and talk about it.”

That discussion, Lott hopes, will lead to more officers feeling comfortable enough to talk about mental health and seek help.

“Maybe they’ll reach out for help and know there’s nothing wrong with asking for help,” he said. “That would be a tribute to Fish and his family.”

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Information from: The State, https://www.thestate.com

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