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.
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).