Through an innovative mental health program, this local law enforcement officer is helping other first responders cope with the immense stresses of the job
Ten years ago, Seminole County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark DiBona was questioning his existence. During his two decades as a law enforcement officer, Mark had seen it all – assaults, child abuse, drug addiction, domestic violence, murder – all the worst things associated with the human condition. As a result, Mark began experiencing severe nightmares and felt a strong sense of worthlessness. He gained 40 pounds and struggled to get to work. Eventually, he started having suicidal thoughts.
When Mark unsuccessfully performed CPR on a four-month-old baby, he reached his breaking point. There were just too many demons in his head, and he felt he had nowhere to turn. After all, as a law enforcement officer, he could not show any weakness. One day, as Mark sat in his patrol car, he put a gun in his mouth and decided it was time to end his suffering. Just as Mark was about to squeeze the trigger, another officer pulled up alongside him and talked him down. It was the lowest point of Mark’s life. He went home and contacted the Stress Unit of the Boston Police Department, where he spent the first 10 years of his career.
“I desperately needed help but was afraid of being perceived as weak,” Mark says, “which is how many of us feel.”
Mark convinced the officer who saved his life not to turn him in and flew up to Boston to check himself into a treatment center.
“I was diagnosed with PTSD, depression, and anxiety,” Mark says. “I felt horrible, but after two weeks of treatment, I started to feel better.”
Every year in the United States, there are between 130 and 150 official suicides among law enforcement officers. Many others go unreported, and for every suicide, thousands of other officers continue to work, suffering from the pain and trauma associated with the job. More than 80,000 active law enforcement officers have been diagnosed with PTSD, and it is estimated that double the number suffer from post-traumatic stress but have not been diagnosed.
When Mark returned to Florida, he reached out to Jaime Bridges, a licensed clinical social work intern and former police officer who provides support for other first responders. With her help, Mark accepted that he was not weak and that it was okay to hurt. His healing process began.
“It’s difficult to go through the chain of command and tell them you have a problem,” says Jaime, who also suffered with stress-related conditions while on the force. “You live through so many traumatic events as a cop that eventually it takes its toll on you. My goal is to educate police officers and give them the tools they need in order to cope.”
With a new lease on life, Mark started sharing his message with others, and he discovered Badge of Life, a Connecticut-based nonprofit organization committed to providing the best and most accurate educational resources and materials on mental health for law enforcement. Mark immediately started volunteering with Badge of Life and worked his way onto the organization’s board of directors. Today, he travels around the country getting the word out and letting law enforcement agencies know that mental health is a serious issue. Badge of Life also produces in-service training and pre-retirement training programs for officers to ensure that all cops knows how to deal with the many emotions they face both during and after their tours of service.
“We have a long struggle ahead to get the institution itself to take this seriously, which is a shame,” Mark says. “I’ll be promoting education and prevention of officer suicide for the rest of my life, and it makes me feel good that, because of my life experiences, I can truly help others who are suffering.”
For more information on Badge of Life, go to BadgeOfLife.com.
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