Column: Depression’s Darkest Day

After Greg O'Dell's death, thoughts on a devastating illness

I last saw Greg O’Dell at the November meeting of the University of Michigan board of regents. At the time, he was UM’s police chief and head of the department of public safety, a job he’d taken in August.

Greg O'Dell at the Nov. 17, 2011 University of Michigan regents board meeting, before his resignation as UM police chief.

We spoke only briefly, and he was polite and respectful – just as he’d been in all the other interactions I’d had with him. Though he seemed a bit more quiet and restrained that day, I thought nothing of it. After all, he’d taken on a significant high-profile responsibility, and was standing in a room full of his new bosses at a public meeting.

Just a few days later, I was surprised to learn that he had decided to resign from UM and return to a post he’d previously held at Eastern Michigan University. EMU had rehired Greg as police chief in late November, and his public statements indicated that he’d decided his position there was a better fit.

Less than a month after that, on the Friday before Christmas, Greg was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, an apparent suicide. He was 54. Shocking is the only way to describe the news – a sentiment I’ve heard expressed repeatedly over the last few days.

As a respected and well-liked leader in local law enforcement – he had spent the bulk of his career with the Ann Arbor police department – Greg was well known throughout the community. That fact was reflected in the hundreds of people who came to pay their respects on Wednesday night at the visitation held at the Nie Family Funeral Home, a diverse crowd of family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances.

He was smart and easy-going with a wry sense of humor, professional yet personable, confident and approachable. His death has stunned us, and even those of us who weren’t close to him will mourn the loss.

I’m sure I’m not alone in spending much of the past few days reflecting on Greg’s death. Not well-known outside a limited community was his struggle with depression. I don’t know the circumstances of his personal situation – and it’s not my business. But as the daughter of someone who suffered from chronic depression, that dark landscape is familiar to me.

This past summer, in the same regents boardroom where I last saw Greg, the director of UM’s Depression Center, John Greden, spoke to regents about the difficulty of fighting the stigma of this illness called depression. In the wake of Greg’s death, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the way that nearly all of us, at some point, grapple with our inner demons or unfathomable despair, and how those struggles can be even more profound for those who work in law enforcement.

The Stigma of Depression

My mother used to call it “feeling blue,” a charming euphemism for the debilitating days spent in bed, curtains drawn, unable to eat, talking only about how she just didn’t feel good and wanted to die. An otherwise spirited woman who loved to laugh, she would fall into these dark, hopeless periods with unfailing regularity around the holidays – she’d become quiet with an empty look in her eyes that signaled the difficult days ahead.

Over the years our family physician, an avuncular man we called Doctor Jim, prescribed various medications for what he called her “nerves,” with limited effect. I drove her to the appointment on the day when he finally told her she needed to see a psychiatrist, after more than two decades of suffering. Afterwards, I remember sitting in the car with her as she sobbed: “People will think I’m crazy! I guess I am crazy.”

For my mother, back in the 1980s, the stigma of depression was still strong. And I’m not sure how much that has changed.

When John Greden addressed the regents at their July 2011 meeting, he spoke about the ongoing need to de-stigmatize the illness. That’s why Greden and others advocated for putting the word “depression” in the name of the new center they launched – the University of Michigan Depression Center. Greden characterized it as a bold move, and a way to help view depression as a matter-of-fact, treatable condition, like cancer or AIDS.

At that meeting, regent Libby Maynard told Greden that someone she knows has needed help for depression, but has resisted seeking treatment. Maynard expressed frustration that she’d been unable to convince this person to get help, and wondered how she, as a lay person, could assist a person who’s suffering from depression.

Greden observed that this is a critical, complex issue. Even though depression isn’t rare, it’s still borne by many with a sense of shame and weakness. Greden said an estimated one in six people experience clinical depression – it’s a leading affliction, along with cardiovascular disease and cancer. It can be treated, and better treatments are being developed every day, but the first hurdle is seeking help.

For men, the stigma can be even greater. The Depression Center’s website addresses this explicitly, quoting Greden: “Depression remains the ‘under’ disease: under-diagnosed, under-discussed, and under-treated for everyone, but especially for men.”

Challenges of Law Enforcement

After Greg’s death, and in reflecting on my own family’s experience with depression, I wondered how police officers and others in law enforcement might confront similar struggles. Like most of us, I’m lucky not to work in the kind of job that puts you face-to-face with humanity’s worst attributes. A few stints covering crime stories back when I worked for the Ann Arbor News – including one notorious local child abuse case – were enough to make me appreciate how insulated I am from the unspeakable acts that human beings perpetrate on each other. But those who work in the criminal justice system have to deal with that every day.

Not surprisingly, the culture of law enforcement can be an insular, macho environment. Though it’s changing in some organizations, you aren’t generally rewarded for showing signs of perceived weakness or for being sensitive.

And it’s unusual for a law enforcement organization to employ someone with a social work background as one of its key executives. But that’s what Washtenaw County sheriff Jerry Clayton did soon after he was elected in 2008, when he hired Derrick Jackson as director of community engagement. The sheriff felt that Jackson’s perspective – as someone who came from outside the traditional law enforcement culture – would be invaluable in helping work through challenges both internal and external to the organization.

Even for officers who don’t suffer from clinical depression, pressures of the work are bound to wear on them, and there are often too few safe or healthy outlets for them to deal with those pressures. In addition to the profession’s traditional culture of avoiding too much that smacks of “touchy-feely,” there’s the extra overlay of liability concerns: A fear that divulging “weaknesses” – whether they be emotional, mental, spiritual or physical – could potentially be used against you in the courtroom.

I talked this week with the sheriff, who had been shocked by the death of his close friend. Clayton said his staff has talked about these issues in the past, and Greg’s death highlights the importance of finding better ways to respond to the needs of people in law enforcement at all levels. He addressed that explicitly in an email sent out to his staff soon after Greg’s death. An excerpt:

Although we may never know what ultimately led to Greg’s passing, we do know that all of us must get better at taking care of ourselves and supporting each other. Ours is a challenging profession, which calls for each of us to “run towards danger, when everyone else is running away.” It is also a high-pressure profession that seemingly has little tolerance for the “weak and sensitive” so we have a tendency to keep our challenges to ourselves and/or to mask them in indifference and sometimes self-destructive behavior – neither of which supports the mental, physical or emotional health that we all need to successfully navigate a career in public service.

Hopefully during this holiday season each of us can spend some time with the people we care about, get some rest and tend to our needs which should include taking the time to do your own personal status check (physical, emotional, mental) and making the necessary adjustments for our own well-being. I believe that we must be healthy ourselves before we can help others. “To do good things in the world, first you must know who you are and what gives meaning to your life.” — Paula P. Brownlee.

Clayton plans to bring up these issues at the next meeting of his executive staff, as well as at the next meeting of police chiefs in the county. “Shame on us if there are red flags and we don’t do anything about it,” he said.

Yet even when red flags are recognized and acted on, treatment is sought and there’s a supportive network of family and colleagues, not everyone who suffers depression survives. That’s just the way any serious illness works.

Greg’s life should be celebrated for many reasons – as a husband, son, father, friend, colleague and leader in our community. Conversations at his visitation unfailingly conveyed both a sense of sorrow and a feeling of gratitude for having known him – whether you were his neighbor, a university president, a journalist or one of the many law enforcement officers who worked by his side. I know we’ll all hold onto our memories of him.

I hope those memories might provide strength – for those who need support, the strength to ask, and for those who are asked, the strength to give.

A memorial service will be held on Thursday, Dec. 29 at 11 a.m. at EMU’s Pease Auditorium, College Place and Cross Street in Ypsilanti. The O’Dell family has requested that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to EMU Athletics or the Ann Arbor Police Department. Contributions to the community policing endowment fund can be made through the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. The online AAACF donation form includes an option for a designation (Ann Arbor Police Department) and a dedication (Greg O’Dell).


  1. By Dave
    December 29, 2011 at 7:54 am | permalink

    Thanks for the moving article. Many of us who didn’t personally know Mr.O’Dell, also felt a great sense of loss at his sudden passing. He was a high profile member of the local law enforcement community and the face to all, who recognized his many positive contributions to the safety of all he served. As one who has witnessed the sorrow of depression, I hope one day people will truly understand this is a disease and should not be categorized as weakness. This community has lost a great man to an illness that seemed overwhelming to him. If you know or suspect someone you are close to, has signs of this illness, be the support and listening ear they need to walk through those dark days to see the light of the wonderful world around them.

  2. December 29, 2011 at 9:19 am | permalink

    We should never take for granted the people that have been entrusted with the mantle of power and authority.

  3. By Eric
    December 29, 2011 at 10:49 am | permalink

    Traditionally one does not speak ill of the dead, however would not mental stability be a prime requirement for the head of a law enforcement organization? Perhaps there should be discreet inquiry as to how this person advanced to the positions he held. Possibly the suicide was motivated by person matters but someone should be looking into his recent professional activities too.

  4. By Barbara Levin Bergman
    December 29, 2011 at 11:35 am | permalink

    Mary, thank you for your sensitive article. Clinical depression is such an insidious disease. It is also a physical disease which is not always easy to control with medication. And a medication that works for years may suddenly become ineffective, causing a period of adjusting medications. This can be a rocky time for persons effected by this and it can also be a rocky time for those close to the person suffering from depression.

    Persons with any mental illness often feel (with justification) stigmatized When persons with any mental illness are on medications that work, they are responsible, caring and loving individuals. In our society it is hard for these individuals to say publicly that they need a time out when medications are not adequately controlling their disease. They live with a fear that if their illness is discovered, they will loose their way of earning their living.

    A member of my family suffers from depression. As family members we support this person and hope that someday this person and all persons so afflicted will be able to discuss their disease openly and expect support from those with whom they interact.

    Again Mary, thank you for your fine article.

  5. December 29, 2011 at 12:47 pm | permalink


    Depression doesn’t run in my family–it gallops. I feel blessed to live in a time when there is proper medication. But as Barbara says above, yes, you are often afraid of losing your job (I know I am). Even though the ADA does cover us, I know that I can’t take a day off every time I have symptoms (I mean, I could, but I’d lose my job).

    The only thing I can suggest is to talk about it and keep talking and keep talking in hopes the stigma will one day be erased.

  6. By Andy
    December 29, 2011 at 2:56 pm | permalink

    Count me as yet another reader whose family is coping with a loved one’s severe depression. Thanks so much to Mary, Mrs. Bergman, & Patti for sharing your experiences & reminding me that we’re not alone.

  7. By Prue
    December 29, 2011 at 10:52 pm | permalink

    Thanks, Mary for sharing your story as well as articulating what many are feeling.

  8. By Emily Eisbruch
    December 30, 2011 at 8:17 am | permalink

    Thank you Mary.

  9. By Wen
    December 30, 2011 at 5:13 pm | permalink


    Meriwether Lewis had depression, he also shot himself. I don’t think American had any doubt of his contribution to the nation as the leader of the Corps of Discovery Expedition. Thomas Jefferson and William Clark had never doubted that Lewis was a supurb leader!

  10. By paul wiener
    January 3, 2012 at 11:33 am | permalink

    I continue to be haunted by Officer O’Dell’s suicide – and I had no connection to him whatever. I’ve also been troubled by the speculations and assumptions about his inexplicable decision. Ms. Morgan’s vague, fleeting reference to his depression was offered like a tease. This isn’t good journalism; it’s low-key sensationalism. No evidence has emerged as yet (or else it has been suppressed) indicating what drove him to his end. Yet depression continues to be named, as is the high stress of law enforcement and its links to depression. These may be factors, but as I said, there is simply no evidence in this instance – yet. Yes, law enforcement, even in a wealthy university town, can be very stressful. So can the internal politics of any workplace. But if such work stress alone caused suicide, there’d be many more doctors, journalists, generals, psychologists, nurses, politicians and teachers – all people who regularly witness cruelty, violence, stupidity, death, pain, and horror – killing themselves. Depression alone rarely causes suicide: when it does, either a traumatic event precipitates it, or its victims are generally alone in the world (or feel they are), have suffered a great loss, are in great pain, have no support system, or all of these. Sometimes a devastating secret kept for many years becomes too much to bear. Rarely are suicides healthy, or have strong roots, many friends, strong family ties, young children, spotless histories, and good jobs. Speculation about Greg O’Dell’s death, I believe, diminishes the man, dilutes the issue of depression and distorts the nature of law enforcement and its officers. There is a great deal not being said about this tragic death; that may be what we’re left with. But it is not a reason to imagine that we knew the underlying causes for his decision. How, when, where and why he died is a mystery and a frightening reminder that there are many things about human nature that aren’t meant to be explained, and that suicide leaves as much anger in its wake as it leaves sadness and compassion.