The global prevalence of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s taking its toll on the police guarding state parks and universities.
Members of the State Police Benevolent Association are responsible for rescuing those in need in state forests or campuses. Sometimes it means helping someone who is thinking or trying to commit suicide.
Robert Praczkajlo, a 22-year-old state ranger, said he helped search for a woman early in his career. She committed suicide after repeatedly stabbing herself in a state forest next to a large oak tree.
Reminiscing about the incident quickly brought him to tears.
“It was so hard to really understand,” he said, adding that he was afraid of the dark for a while afterwards. “I didn’t know her. I didn’t know the family. It was just really, really difficult.”
It’s been nearly two decades, but grief lingers in the hearts of the officers who responded.
“Firefighters who see crazy things, they see people burning, they were crazy in the head,” recalls Praczkajlo. “Their reaction in the woods was just that they were screaming. … I was screwed. I was new and I wasn’t talking to anyone.”
Parks Police in the Niagara region of western New York, which includes Niagara Falls, regularly respond to people in distress contemplating suicide – something that has become almost a weekly call since the pandemic.
“It draws people in because it’s so beautiful,” said Hayley Boland, a Niagara-area state park police officer. “It seems like we get a lot of people coming over there to end their lives.”
A 14-year-old boy committed suicide in the gorge of Niagara Falls this spring. A woman drove her car through water last December, Boland said.
Officers often push her over the edge, working hard to stay strong for the person’s family.
“Everyone treats it differently,” Boland added. “You almost have to stay strong for the family because they’re going to need your support.”
People contemplating harming themselves often head into the woods for several days — usually by killing themselves from an overdose of prescription drugs or other substances, by hanging or jumping off a cliff.
“Sometimes you get the time of death from the coroner and you’re like, ‘Man, we were already looking for them… We just haven’t found them yet,'” Praczkajlo said.
Suicide attempts are more common among teenagers and young adults who may leave notes, keys or wallets behind like crumbs for officers to find.
It’s a difficult, but normalizing, subject to broach.
“If you need help, get the help you need,” said Jeffrey Eckert, a Niagara Region Park Police officer.
He noted the changing culture among law enforcement and first responders to talk about a traumatic call.
“They used to say, ‘Don’t talk about it, kid,'” Eckert said. “…[but] there is growing recognition that asking for help is the right way to handle the situation rather than keeping it inside and letting it build up.”
Officers say most other calls that end in successful rescues are worth it. It is not uncommon for the police to pull someone away from the edge of rocks or water and save their life by calling for the professional help they need.
University police have also seen an increase in mental health calls, as law enforcement was called upon early in the pandemic when most other industries shut down.
“We were really the first on the scene for maybe even things that wouldn’t be a call from the police,” said Caitlin Clark, a member of the University Police PBA. “But they didn’t have anyone else.”
This takes its toll on PBA officers, impacting their already severe staffing crisis.
Chris Kostoss, a ranger who helped educate DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos and PBA police on mental health law, died by suicide this spring after receiving mental health treatment for more than a year. decade.
Kostoss was one of Praczkajlo’s closest friends and strives to remember his beloved friend’s legacy in continuing mental health training for law enforcement.
“Here’s an amazing guy, an amazing ranger, who couldn’t take it anymore because of his job…and the other stresses he had in his life,” Praczkajlo said.
He advised: “Seek the most, best, professional help you can find and don’t wait until it’s too late.”
Members have access to mental health assistance through the State Police Employee Assistance Program. On Friday, many officers said they felt uncomfortable using the crisis peer mentorship program to speak with fellow officers.
A bill to reform the PBA retirement system at age 20 of 25 awaits Governor Kathy Hochul’s signature. About 97% of state law enforcement can retire after 20 years. The PBA police are among the few exceptions, forced to work another five years.
Kostoss’ death by suicide occurred after more than 22 years of service. Union members said this is an example of why they have to retire after 20 years on the job when other police officers do.
Hochul’s office said Friday it was reviewing the legislation and would not answer questions about the 25-year-old retirement policy’s links to officers’ mental health crises.
PBA advocates say it is unlikely to sign the measure before the Nov. 8 gubernatorial election.
Union representatives recently met with Governor Hochul’s staff to provide statistics on the bill to reform the PBA pension system.