One of Vermont's most well-known law enforcement officers is speaking out about his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts, in the hopes that it might help others seek help.
For Keith Clark, it started with a physical jolt. The Windham County sheriff had arrived at the local hospital to pick up and transport a patient who was being involuntarily committed for mental health treatment at the Brattleboro Retreat.
Clark walked over to introduce himself and the young man punched the sheriff, knocking him out. Clark had a concussion, and as part of the treatment protocol, he had to stay at home with no TV, no computer, no work.
“And when I was home during that seven days,” Clark told Vermont Edition, “suddenly I had my first suicidal thought. It came in and went out and I even said out loud to myself, ‘Where did that come from? I would never do that.’ But soon it became all-encompassing; it was all I could think about.”
The concussion didn't cause his depression, but Clark describes it as a triggering event. For decades, he had tried to bury the pressures of his career in law enforcement, his tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2010 and all the other myriad stresses in life. But once the suicidal thoughts started, they wouldn’t stop. Clark obsessed about them, going so far as to mentally script out his suicide notes to his family. He kept stumbling over what he would say to his grandson, Hunter.
“I could not come up with the right words to say to a five-year-old that I couldn’t be there, and why I needed to do what I needed to do,” Clark remembers.
He couldn't sleep--sometimes going four or five nights without rest. He withdrew from activities he enjoyed. Worried about stigma and wanting to power through, he lied to those closest to him. Then, on May 18th of last year, he reached the breaking point.
“I said ‘that's it,’” Clark recalls, of that morning. “I left my house thinking [my life] was going to be over. I knew where I was going to go; I knew how I was going to do it. And as I was going there, the Retreat literally was in front of me. And I pulled into the parking lot, locked my gun in the glove box, locked my keys in the car so there was no way I could leave, walked in and said ‘I need some help.’”
Clark checked himself into the Brattleboro Retreat, a place he'd been many times before to serve paperwork or transport patients.
At first the staff didn't even understand he was there for himself. But one of the security guards walking by recognized that when Clark said “I need help,” he meant for himself. The guard got a nurse and the nurse started the process for Clark to be admitted as an inpatient.
He stayed in the hospital for nearly a week, and then entered the Uniformed Service Program, doing intensive therapy and recovery work.
As part of his therapy plan, Sheriff Clark wanted to go public. He and his treatment team agreed he should wait a full year, just to make sure he was in a really good place. And now he's started speaking out, urging others to get help if they need it.
“I can’t keep it private,” he explains. “I'm a public person; I think the public needs to know. But more importantly, by me going public, I can help others, to say it’s okay to get help."
Clark says some other officers have already reached out to thank him. He says he’ll hold their hand and go with them to take the first step towards reaching out for help.
“We in law enforcement, fire service, soldiers, we tend to keep things internal. We try to solve things ourselves. Sometimes we just need help. And we just have to be part of getting over that stigma.”
At one point, Sheriff Keith Clark thought he'd never put on a uniform again. Now he plans to run for another term as sheriff, hoping the public will see his experience and advocacy as a strength.