Talking About Suicide

Because it's not a taboo

Talking with Eric Weaver

I came across Eric Weaver by accident while researching a post for the related site What Happens Now? He comes from the rare, if not unique, background of having been a police officer, a pastor and an attempt survivor. He now runs an organization to train police officers and others about suicidal thinking and other mental health issues.

Here, he recalls his journey, including the response he gave to a police captain when he first wanted to tell his story openly to colleagues. “Eric, what would people say?” the captain asked.

“Captain, that’s the problem,” Eric said. “We’re so concerned what strangers think about us that we’re willing to throw away our families, our careers, our very lives. If people don’t like Eric Weaver by now, they’re not gonna.”

He also talks about the one experience in his life that’s been tougher than suicidal thinking _ and it’s not quite what you would expect.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

Sure. My name is Eric Weaver. I’m a retired sergeant of the Rochester, New York police department. I entered law enforcement after my 20th birthday, and I retired in 2005. I spent 13 years as a sergeant, several years on the SWAT team, several years in internal affairs. My last assignment was commanding officer of the Emotionally Disturbed Persons Response Team, a group of officers that respond specifically to people with mental illness, suicidal. I actually was the mental health coordinator of the police department.

After 2005, I became a pastor for five years at a large church in upstate New York. I dealt with issues of mental health, mental illness, suicide for quite a while. I now have my own consulting and training group. I train on these issues.

How long has that group been going?

Since 2010.

What exactly do you do?

A lot of keynote speeches, seminars. I’m a national trainer for Mental Health First Aid. I’m an ASIST master instructor. I do a lot of training for law enforcement and a lot of training on issues of mental health, mental illness on the part of officers as well.

How did you come to be talking with me?

People say, “How in the world did you go from a SWAT team to a team for those who are suicidal or have mental illness?” My whole journey has been an amazing one. I was training coordinator for the SWAT team, that was one of my jobs. During that time, my own issues of mental health, depression were so strong, my own feelings of being suicidal were very strong. Nothing specific happened, just all of a sudden things started coming up in life where I felt suicidal. I told my wife one day, “I need to tell you something. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m thinking about killing myself.” She said, “Don’t you need to get help?” I said, “Don’t tell anybody, that would be the worst thing to happen to me.” I went to my primary care doctor, who hooked me up with a psychologist. Then, in the spring of 1996, my suicidality was so severe I knew I needed to be hospitalized. My first time in the psych hospital was in spring 1996. The thoughts of suicide were so intense that I needed hospitalization or I would take my own life. One of the first things to do was call in sick. Like anybody else, I have to call in sick. So people say, “What did you say?” I had said I was working out, and my back went out while doing squats, and I have to be out for a while.

I was in the hospital for a week or so. I was discharged. Then a week or two later, I was still out sick, and I found self barricaded in my house. I locked myself in, banging my head on the toilet, trying to cut head open, anything I could to cause myself physical harm. Thank God I didn’t have my gun with me. As I was yelling and screaming through the bathroom door, my wife at the time called my doctor and said, “This is Mrs. Weaver, I don’t know what to do. This is what he’s saying.” My three daughters went down to the basement playroom. My doctor said, “Go stand by the front door, make sure he doesn’t run out. I’ll call 911.”

You can imagine my reaction as a suicidal SWAT team sergeant when I heard 911 being called on me. I screamed through the bathroom door, “If you bring a deputy, bring 20, because no one is going to take me out of my home!” Which I’d heard before. 911 was called. A lieutenant showed up and knocked on the door: “You gotta come out.” I told him no, not unless my captain advised it. Only if he comes out and orders me out. This lieutenant was standing there. My wife calls the captain, who came right to my house and told me to come out. I said, “Yes sir.” I was taken to my second hospitalization.

My first and second hospitalizations were not at a Rochester hospital, because everyone knows me there. So I went to a smaller hospital farther away in a different county. At one point in time, however, they said to me, “Mr. Weaver, there’s not a lot we can do for you here. We do short-term acute care, but your depression and suicide, that really doesn’t seem to be going away.” So they said, “There’s this great day treatment program in Rochester that we set up for you. Go to support groups, see a doctor.” I realized my depression and thoughts of suicide, nothing was getting better, so I did day treatment.

I did that a couple of weeks, and my suicidality once again got so great that I was hospitalized for the first time in Rochester for about a month. I was doing groups, and I was discharged after about a month. Again I became suicidal, and I was hospitalized again another four, five, six weeks. To make a long story short, in spring-fall 1996 I was hospitalized five times. Each time was anywhere from 10 days to four or five weeks. During that time, they tried a tremendous amount of medication, but nothing worked. My doctor introduced us to ECT. At that point, I was in no position to make a lot of decisions for myself. I was just a mess. We decided as a family to try ECT. There’s a lot of conflicting thoughts about ECT, but to my experience, it was a life-saving experience. The medication started doing what it was supposed to do, and I went back to work.

I was ready to come back to work, and I got approval from my doctor. No one knew other than my captain and the deputy chief, since he reports to his superiors. So when I went back to work, I had hundreds of officers asking about my back.

Oftentimes when I speak about issues of stigma, people think, “Everyone is going to find out. Does that happen sometimes?” Maybe. But other times, that doesn’t happen. Our department has 700 people in it, and nobody knew. I try to make that clear for people who are afraid to get help because someone might find out. Often, that doesn’t happen.

So anyway, I was back to work, doing well, and all was fine until all of sudden my depression came to a head once again in 1998, where I found myself down in the basement of an old public safety building trying to take my life with my handgun. Then I heard water running in the bathroom are near the locker room, so I put my gun in its holster and walked to the bathroom, but no one was there. Take that for what that’s worth. I take it as a divine intervention. I went back upstairs, called my wife and said, “I need to go to the hospital again.” Once again, everyone thought it was a back injury.

I was hospitalized once in 1998. So that was a better year than 1996. When I back to work again in 1998, things started changing a bit. In 2002, my life changed dramatically when an officer completed suicide. An officer I worked with and knew. I knew then and there, when I heard, I knew in my heart that God didn’t save me from all those attempts and hospitalizations to keep it all to myself. I felt really strongly that I should share my story with people. I know a lot of officers were struggling, and I needed to tell my story so others wouldn’t die.

I asked for time on the agenda of the command staff meeting. I asked for about 10 minutes, and I was given a few minutes. I came out with my story and shared with all these captains and commanding officers where I really was in 1996, 1998. That I didn’t have a back injury, but I have a mental illness and suicidal thinking. To one captain, I said, “Please let me put together some kind of training to tell my story and tell officers how to prevent this, and the challenges officers face.” And I had one captain tell me, it was really kind of wild what he said, “Eric, you can’t get up in front of all those cops, 700 officers, and tell them you were in a psych hospital and mentally ill and suicidal.” I said, “Captain, why not?” He looked at me and said, “Eric, what would people say?” And I said, “Captain, that’s the problem. We’re so concerned what strangers think about us that we’re willing to throw away our families, our careers, our very lives. If people don’t like Eric Weaver by now, they’re not gonna.” I said it’s not about me, it’s about them. And so he realized I was on to something.

I started putting together an Emotional Safety and Survival training. I taught the whole police department and quite a lot over the years, 10,000 to 11,000 officers around New York state and parts of the country. Traumatic stress, alcohol abuse, suicide, all that kind of stuff. Stigma, how to recover, how to live life in full.

When I became the commanding officer of the Emotionally Disturbed Persons Response Team, I spoke out more on mental illness and suicide. It was really kind of neat being in full uniform, with all my medals and badge: “My name is Eric Weaver, I’m a sergeant with a police department and I have a mental illness.” I make sure I include this: My deputy chief at the time, Dr. Cedric Alexander, who is also a clinical psychologist, was incredibly supportive in my telling my story. If not for his support, no way I would be able to speak about a very difficult subject. So he is a huge part of how I came to doing all of this.

In 2005, I was going to retire. I retired because it felt like time to go and move on to another stage, going into pastoral ministry, but the mental illness didn’t go away. I’d been diagnosed with anything from bipolar to major depression to anxiety disorder to OCD to PTSD, I’ve been diagnosed with many different illnesses. PTSD and OCD for the most part. And meds for all of it. In 2005, I was able to start speaking on mental illness and suicide from a faith perspective. Being able to stand up and say, “I’m a pastor with mental illness” was just as striking. It’s not something you talk about very much in the faith setting. To stand up in the pulpit and say it opened doors for others to talk about it.

In 2008, nothing specific happened, but in December 2008, I found myself hospitalized for the seventh time, and suicide and issues came up again. I was hospitalized as a pastor, so certainly there was lots of stigma surrounding that. At least I was able to admit who I was.

I’ve always been in some kind of counseling, where I’m on my way to right now. I’ve been on meds since 1996 or so, including ECT, but my recovery journey is an amazing one. My experiences professionally and personally, my own understanding of mental illness and suicide, has allowed me to speak to lots of people. And allowed me to tell my story. It’s really been a continuing journey.

My thoughts of suicide still occur. It’s part of my life, and I have to accept that it is. My thoughts of suicide happen frequently, sometimes weekly, sometimes daily. I’m able to work with people on my recovery. I look at my mental illness _ and it’s weird to say this _ but as a blessing, because there’s no way I would do what I do, speak to people I speak to, if I didn’t have a mental illness, because I would have no reason to, no understanding. I used to have a very distorted perception of mental illness, my own stigmas of it.

So yeah, I deal with it, mental illness and suicide from a variety of perspectives. Someone who responded to literally hundreds of people who were suicidal, to dealing with them from a faith perspective, from the perspective of a consumer. I probably will be a consumer for the rest of my life, which is OK. And as a parent. I have three daughters, and two have diagnosed mental health issues. It’s a challenge to deal with it with my kids. What do I do? So I learned a lot about family members with mental illness. All my family is incredibly healthy physically, we just struggle with mental stuff. We openly talk about it publicly, to help people understand what goes on.

That’s pretty much it! I told you a lot!

What do all of these people, or many of these people, have in common? What patterns have you seen? You’ve been in a unique place to observe.

It really all depends. Every situation, just like every person, is unique. They may have something in common and things may be handled similarly, but each crisis is a unique experience.

Was there ever a time when you mentioned your own experience when responding as a police officer to someone suicidal?

Yes, I have. On occasion, and only when I felt it was appropriate to do so, I shared a very small portion of my experience with suicidal persons. However, I never wanted to make a situation about me. As a pastor, I shared it quite often in counseling settings, since most people sought me out for counseling because I had the experiences I had.

How easy is it for a police officer to seek help, especially openly? Do you see your speaking and training making a difference on local police?

It’s very difficult for an officer to seek help openly, due to stigma and a perception of weakness. However, there are programs out there such as EAP (Employee Assistance Programs) or OAP (Officer Assistance Programs) where officers can go to get confidential counseling. I hope my speaking out and trainings have made a difference. According to a vast majority of feedback I receive, it has.

You said that before getting ECT, you were in no position to be making decisions. What is the best way to make sure a person’s wishes are respected while in crisis? And from your experience with hundreds of people, are most thinking clearly despite their pain or desperation?

I trusted my doctors and my family to help me make the decisions that I made for ECT treatment, similar to how I would trust them if I was faced with a physical illness. I strongly feel that the consumer should be involved as much as possible with any treatment planning. Remember, I was in the hospital, but I wasn’t in crisis. A person is usually in crisis when they are getting admitted, but once they are there, the crisis period is usually over. And no, I don’t feel that most people who are in crisis are thinking clearly at the time of interaction with law enforcement. Perceptions are very distorted when a person is in crisis, which makes training for police officers on the issues of mental health even more important.

(I ask about a comment from a recent interview in which the person said they feel pressure to not tell audiences if he’s having a bad day.)

I speak very openly, where I’m still on meds and probably will be forever, and it’s still OK, and I have thoughts of suicide often, including today, and I’m very straightforward. I’m working on it, just like anybody should be. I heard similar stories in regards to, “Gee, don’t you want a time when you don’t have to take meds anymore?” Sure, but I’m OK with it not happening. I would tell people it’s kind of disheartening that the only way to “be better” is to not take meds anymore. I wouldn’t tell anyone that struggling with physical illness. But because we struggle with daily life, many of us with long-term persistent mental illness will always just be in recovery. It’s one of those things. In certain times in my life. there’s no way I’d do public speaking because I was in the hospital, a mess. But my level of recovery now, my story is so powerful and you’re willing to talk about struggle, people want to hear that. People fall into that perception, they want to hear you’re all better. But that you’re still getting through it is OK. I’ve never really run into someone telling me not to say something. With all the speaking I’ve done. I’m not sure what I’d tell them. I’m not going to lie!

What about the possibility of a national messaging campaign for attempt survivors, would something like that work?

It’s the kind of thing you want to be cautious about. You don’t want to put people at risk with your story. As we all know, talking about suicide doesn’t make people suicidal. But it could put people at risk if it’s graphic, a lot of details. Every time I speak, I assume there will be suicide survivors in that class, either they lost someone or are attempt survivors. I don’t want to trigger someone with my story. I’m very cautious with speaking about the details. That’s why when I told you the story about the basement, I don’t go into details about what happened. It’s not really necessary. You got the point without me saying what I did. Just to be very cautious. Simply because a lot of people want to tell their story, but be careful to do it in a recovery-focused way.

What can be done to make it easier for people who speak out to find each other?

That’s tough. You have some people who want to tell their story locally, others nationally. Sometimes I run across an article where someone talks about suicide locally that I never heard about before. I think organizations like NAMI, DBSA, have the ability to reach out, make national headway with some things. It would be great to kind of centralize some things, some thoughts and ideas, whether it’s starting on a website or LinkedIn to get people connected. I think it’s a good thing that more people are speaking out, it’s just how to organize.

Why aren’t the organizations jumping in on this?

This is purely my opinion, but I think the topic of suicide is still difficult even for mental health organizations to speak about. We can talk about mental illness, but it’s difficult to speak about suicide. Because no one wants to be the person who puts someone else at risk. The issue of suicide, we don’t want to go there. And I hope that’s changing. I know I’m trying to change it. I think in general, it’s a huge issue. Even though we know 90 percent of people who die with suicide have a mental disorder, they go hand in hand, even to have mental health organizations to speak on it themselves … Suicide is still the s-word that no one wants to talk about. It’s a shame, and an attempt is made every 30 seconds to a minute. There’s attempt survivors everywhere we look. And it’s really time we started speaking about it. Something’s got to change. Something’s got to change. I’m still a small fish in a big pond.

You mentioned responding to hundreds of suicidal people as a police officer. Hundreds?

In 22 years. One of the things an officer responds to is someone who attempts suicide. I’ve responded to way too many calls of completed suicide. I’ve been to countless suicide scenes. It’s one thing we take very seriously. We take people to the hospital, to treatment, that kind of thing.

(I ask about how some people feel traumatized when police respond.)

What happens is, people who … There’s two distorted perceptions. One, on the part of law enforcement. In 20-some years, no one calls 911 to say how good they’re doing. They’re in crisis. Police officers don’t come across the millions of people with mental illness who are doing just fine. They simply come across those in crisis. So often, officers get a very distorted perception of what mental illness is. “They’re always trying to kill themselves.” That’s obviously not accurate.

It’s the exact same thing for consumers. The only time they deal with law enforcement is when they’re in crisis. They get a distorted perception of the police. And so that combination could go really well, but often times it goes bad. Two sets of distorted perceptions about each other, like oil and water sometimes. What we can do is more training. In New York state, officers get just 16 hours of mental health training, at the academy.

Sixty or 16?

Sixteen. Surely that’s not adequate whatsoever. Imagine having a job where you’ve never been trained for 80 percent of your job.

How much?

In my opinion and experience, about 70 to 80 percent of police responses have mental health issues there that the person is dealing with. It may come in as a family trouble, someone stealing bread, whatever, but the mental health issue is there. Simply, the training we have and ought to have will change perceptions. We try to change that perception.

At the same time, I do a lot of speaking to consumers. And I tell them, “When police come to your house, this is what happens.” They have no choice other than to take you to the hospital, that’s for your safety, your family’s safety. If you threaten suicide, by law you’re taken to the hospital. I do training for both police and consumers to form that bridge. To make it more understandable.

Are you the only one out there doing this, talking from this perspective?

I’m the only one I know of that speaks from the perspective of being in both law enforcement and in ministry, as well as being a consumer. Lucky me, I’m the one. But once again, because I do have that unique story, that’s one reason why I speak.

You mentioned having suicidal thoughts today, and you’re going to your counselor now. How do you take care of yourself?

Sometimes we have thoughts that are fleeting, and sometimes where you require hospitalization. Sometimes the thoughts I have come and go, sometimes they’re greater than others, sometimes they’re whatever. The medication I take helps tremendously. I know what life would be without medication, so that’s why I take it. I’m working through trauma I experienced in police work, and in working through it I understand it’s part of my life, and I’ve learned to accept that. And I tell my wife and especially my doctor when I have them. I made a promise to myself.

What more would you like to do in this work?

My ultimate dream from what I do now? I want myself to be in the business of putting myself out of business. Does that make sense? I want to be in the business of making it so mental illness, everyone just understands mental illness, the suicide rate goes down to zero, that people speak openly and honestly to reduce stigma, speak about issues surrounding this. I want to not have to work anymore. I don’t have to go speak. I don’t have to train in suicide prevention, because everyone speaks openly about it. Really, that’s your ultimate goal. So the issues you speak on, everyone already understands. To not have to speak anymore. that would be awesome.

Who else are you?

I’m a husband, I’m a father, a grandfather. A father of three daughters and two stepkids, five grandchildren. I work out every day. My daughters and I have done competitions together. I’ve been a Tough Mudder, if you know what that is. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, Cara. All the SWAT training, in the police department, I’ve never done anything tougher than Tough Mudder. I made the promise, never again. I’ve been married three times. My second marriage was 25 years, and my mental health took a toll on that. It’s difficult. My current wife, a year and a half ago, really got thrown into the pool of mental illness, to understand what it’s all about. I’m 50 years old. If I had one dream, I would wish to be taller. I’m only 5-5 and a half. I’ve done bodybuilding shows, competitions of physical stuff. That’s behind me now that I’m old. So yeah, that’s it! Father, grandfather, husband and just one heck of a nice guy! Well, you can take that ‘heck of a nice guy’ part out if you want … but I am.

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