Okaloosa officers create suicide awareness video to show ‘there is help out there’

Sierra Rains
Northwest Florida Daily News

More law enforcement officers die by suicide than in the line of duty almost every year, with 81 suicides reported in the nation so far in 2021

Many struggle with mental health issues in silence, but officers from across Okaloosa County want their colleagues to know “I will listen.” Leaders from every major law enforcement agency in the county took part in a video project to bring awareness to suicide among law enforcement and first responders. 

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The video is a part of a national campaign led by Blue H.E.L.P., a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that aims to reduce mental health stigma and advocate for benefits for those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions. 

The co-founder of the nonprofit, Dr. Jeffery McGill, also serves as the director of the Northwest Florida State College public safety training center and was the inspiration for two officers from different agencies who worked together to create the video. 

Fort Walton Beach Police Officer Karry Johnson talks about a recent video he helped produce for suicide awareness and prevention among law enforcement officers and other first responders.

It isn’t a secret that officers struggle with mental health, but it is something that should be talked about more, said Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Deputy Warren “Keith” McCullough, who added that officers face even more struggles amid COVID-19. 

“There’s a lot of stressors that are going on that are not a norm,” McCullough said. “For me, one suicide is one too many, and I wanted to get the word out there that I really believe there is a group of people out there that are willing to listen and get help to those that need it.”

While working as a school resource officer at Silver Sands School, McCullough met Fort Walton Beach Police Officer Karry Johnson, who is part of the community policing division. Johnson has been going to film school for the past year and agreed to help with the project. 

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“I’m honored that he considered me to be his partner to work on this project,” Johnson said. “Suicide among first responders is such a thing that’s stigmatized that people don’t talk about it because they’re afraid of being looked down upon by their peers, by their family members, or even losing their jobs.”

They began working on the project in the spring and completed it earlier this month. McCullough helped develop the script and coordinate with the other agencies in the county, while Johnson filmed and edited the video. 

“We felt that if we could get all the major agencies in Okaloosa County involved, it would show a really good solidarity between everybody," McCullough said. "That no matter what color uniform you wear, whether it be blue, black or green, that there’s always somebody there to help.”

Fort Walton Beach Police Officer Karry Johnson uses a video editing app to preview a video he helped create for suicide awareness and prevention among law officers and other first responders.

In the video, Okaloosa County Sheriff Eric Aden, Niceville Police Chief David Popwell, Fort Walton Beach Police Chief Robert Bage, Crestview Police Chief Stephen McCosker and other senior leaders and officers state their intentions to help end the stigma about seeking help by being there to listen and provide resources for those who need it. 

“Everybody that was involved in it was excited about it. They gave their all,” McCullough said. “It was really good to see that the agencies know that there is a need and that they are willing to put themselves out there and say ‘We do need to make this a priority.’ ”

The video has been shared on Blue H.E.L.P.’s social media platforms and will be shared with officers at departments across the county and beyond. McCullough said it is just the start of the #IWillListen campaign. 

“I think it will steer us in the right direction,” McCullough said of the video. “Do I think it’s going to be the absolute fix of it? No. But I believe that it can definitely start the dialogue and open it up to what is a potential problem, but that there is help out there.”

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Although the perception appears to be changing, McCullough and Johnson said law officers have long perceived getting help as “a weakness.” 

“No one wants to feel helpless or weak, especially in a field where we’re looked at as the pillars of the community and we’re strong,” Johnson said. “To admit that you need help, in some people’s eyes, they take it as weakness, when it really isn’t.”

McCullough spent 26 years in the Air Force and went on multiple tours in the Middle East before joining the Sheriff's Office. During that time, he “saw what it did to people” and said law enforcement isn’t very different. 

Okaloosa County Sheriff's Deputy Warren "Keith" McCullough showcases the Exceptional Service Award he received recently at the National Association of School Resource Officers Training Conference in Orlando. McCullough has helped produce a video about suicide awareness for law officers and other first responders.

“It’s a lot of mental stress we’re having to deal with. We deal with the different calls all the time,” McCullough said. “My concern isn’t necessarily the big events that will drive a person to this. It’s all the little things that you don’t think anything about. But they’re always in the back, you’re always thinking about it whether you realize it or not.”

Some officers fear that seeking help might be the end of their career, but often that is not the reality, McCullough said. Each department has resources available for officers struggling with mental health issues.

Johnson said peer support counselors at the Fort Walton Beach Police Department help officers talk through traumatic experiences, find ways to cope and obtain any other resources they might need. Supervisors at the Sheriff’s Office also can refer deputies to mental health services or specialists.

There are also many national resources available. Officers can contact CopLine to anonymously speak to a retired officer for peer support. The 24-hour hotline can be reached at 1-800-267-5463. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline also is available at 1-800-273-TALK. 

“There are resources out there,” McCullough said. “I don’t necessarily think they’re not known, it’s just people don’t want to think that that’s going to be them until it’s too late.”

Johnson hopes that the video shows “there’s no shame in getting help,” he said.

“Hopefully it will just help one person,” McCullough said. “If it will help one person, then the whole project was worth everything that we put into it.”