This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Police officers jump from one chaotic and stressful call to the next and often “absorb” the tragedy they encounter each day. Frank Ray, a former police officer and country musician, is working to break the taboo surrounding officer mental health so no cop turns to suicide or alcohol to escape mental anguish.
“Unfortunately, we’ve sort of bred an environment when it comes to this profession of suppressing those traumas and experiences that you deal with on a daily basis. And that’s not good, because eventually they will manifest themselves. Those experiences you go through, if you suppress it long enough, it’s going to manifest itself and in unfortunate circumstances,” Ray said.
Ray spent a decade as an officer in Las Cruces, New Mexico, before retiring and launching his country music career. Despite no longer working in law enforcement, he remains committed to his policing family, which was underscored recently when the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund named him honorary chief ambassador of the fund’s ambassador program.
“I’ve always wanted to stay close to the community and have an impact and make a mark on the world. Not just the music industry, but know that I did something good in the world, something positive to help our society. And I felt like nobody was really talking about the impacts that law enforcement officers go through in their lives.”
The former cop is now using his platform to spread awareness of officer mental health and how officers can reclaim their happiness and well-being. He launched a campaign this year named FRAY to reflect “first responders’ mental clarity” and is working with members of Congress to expand the campaign and get more police departments and officers talking about mental health.
“After walking a mile in those shoes for 10 years, I know the stuff that keeps me up at night. And so I knew that I couldn’t be the only one. And, fortunately, I had music to kind of turn to as therapy and to be able to kind of put these experiences into a song. But a lot of people don’t have that,” Ray, known for songs such as “Country’d Look Good on You,” said.
Ray said suicides and struggles with mental health have spiked in recent years, but “nobody really wants to talk about” it because it’s such a dark and heavy subject.
A recent study using data from the CDC’s National Occupational Mortality Surveillance database found law enforcement personnel are 54% more likely to commit suicide when compared to the general U.S. population.
Suicides have rocked a handful of police departments the last two years, including clusters of suicides in short spans of time. The Chicago Police Department lost three officers to suicide in a single week last December, five San Antonio police officers took their lives over seven months in 2022 and four former and current Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office members committed suicide in a 24-hour span this month.
The FBI launched its Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection initiative last year, which found there were 39 suicides and nine attempted suicides among officers in 2022. The FBI noted in its report that data was limited because it’s a new database.
Burnout from the job, PTSD, chronic illnesses, relationship problems and depression were the likely top contributors for an officer committing suicide, according to the data.
Ray said officers’ mental health likely suffered amid 2020’s wave of anti-police rhetoric that washed over the nation, and, through his work with FRAY and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, he is working to “remind the public” that police officers are human beings who suffer just like everyone else.
“These are human beings, and when you take away the political aspect of the whole thing, and you humanize the people that are going out there and doing this — like I said, very often thankless job, you can relate with that a little bit more. And I think that’s part of it, it’s humanizing the men and women that bear that badge, rather than just seeing a uniform,” he said.
Ray said the fight to break the stigma surrounding mental health on the force will be long and suggested the “first step” to improving mental health is talking to friends and loved ones.
“Talk about it. Talk to your buddy. We call it a checkup from the neck up. … Just check on your buddy. It doesn’t have to be this sit-down, one-hour long therapeutic session. You can just be like, ‘Are you good? If you want to go out and have a beer after work or something like that, let’s talk about it,'” he said.
“Rather than have this sort of machismo sort of attitude to the profession, we have to be able to be vulnerable and add that quality into the profession. We’re human beings at the end of the day. The men and women that bear that badge, wear that uniform, are human beings. They have struggles, bills of their own. They have spouses. They have families, and they’re susceptible to mental deterioration like anybody else,” Ray said.
Ray is heading to Washington, D.C., next month to formally accept his title as honorary chief ambassador of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund’s ambassador program. The nonprofit, established in 1984, honors the work of law enforcement officers by remembering officers who lost their lives in the line of duty, including by building the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in D.C., organizing National Police Week and coordinating educational outreach programs for departments.
“I knew about [the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund] during my time in law enforcement but just recently got to actually be a part of the organization and their ambassador program. And that was a huge honor because it allows me to speak about their organization through my platform. And, of course, we know country music is huge, music in general is a huge platform for us to be able to speak about something other than music,” he said.
While touring with his band, Ray said he frequently discusses and highlights the work of police officers and visits fire and police departments to discuss his FRAY campaign and talk to officers about the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. FRAY has also established “decompression rooms” in a handful of police departments, where officers can take a few minutes in a relaxing room, complete with a massage chair and Bose sound system, to recalibrate before jumping back into protecting the community.
“Removing that negative stigma was the main goal, and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund heard about my efforts in that. And they invited me to be a part of their ambassador program, not only to use my platform to amplify their mission, but vice versa,” he explained.
Ray argued that cops are “notorious for compartmentalizing” their emotions and advised that, in addition to talking to loved ones when they aren’t doing well, officers should throw themselves into hobbies like hunting, fishing and hitting the gym.
“Nobody ever calls 911 when things are going great. Nobody ever calls to say, ‘Hey, I hope you’re having a great day.’ It’s always problem after problem after problem, and they’re calling you to help fix it or help solve it right. And you absorb all of that, and people don’t see that. They just think you’re doing a job. You’re doing a job, but you’re a human being and … this is gonna affect you,” Ray said.