Belinda's story: a policeman's suicide
On New Year's Eve 2012, Snr Constable Laurie Fox took his own life, leaving behind a wife and two children.PT8M4S 620 349
The detective on nightshift had no ambitions to work homicide cases but when the call came of a potential murder he was straight into the car and off to the crime scene.
There were three bodies at the inner suburban house; the dad in the garage, the son in the lounge and the mother in the laundry – her fingers bloodied from frantically digging at the concrete laundry wall as her second son came to kill her.
The next night the killer was caught and confessed dutifully to the same detective who typed the statement for the offender to sign.
The young policeman with a couple of kids didn't dwell on the horror for the rest of his 35-year career but as an old man those images came flooding back. He could sketch the crime scene with his eyes closed for when he opened them they would be filled with tears.
I saw his pain first-hand but couldn't make it go away. He was my father.
Sometimes for police the deepest psychological wounds can take decades to reach the surface and by then there is no one left to help.
I have known six police who have taken their own lives after they have left the force and at least another dozen who are in danger of losing their way.
Some lose their identity and sense of worth when they hand back their badge. Others cut ties with their workmates in the hope it will help bury reoccurring nightmares. .
That is the battle for serving and former police – to see that seeking help over mental health issues is not a sign of weakness, but the first step to recovery.
Since 1995, a total of 26 operational police and six unsworn members have taken their own lives. In the same time three police have been murdered – which means police employees are nearly 10 times as likely to die at their own hand than from another.
And then there are retired police who have lost their social and professional support networks. No one knows the size of the problem, but there is mounting evidence it is huge.
Police Association secretary Ron Iddles and Chief Commissioner Ken Lay regularly receive emails from the families of retired police fearing the worst.
One woman says her husband rarely leaves the house and every day she comes home dreading that she will find his body.
In an encouraging development the union and the police department are working with beyondblue to create programs specifically designed for police and other emergency service workers.
The challenge will be to make them see they need it.
Sometimes it can be one incident or it can be a build up of events over years until, as one expert says, "the bucket is full and then just overflows".
The respected detective was always chosen to work on the hard jobs, such as the Russell Street Police Station car bombing that killed Police Constable Angela Taylor and wounded 21 people.
But years after they made the arrests he still couldn't get into a car without checking if it had been booby-trapped.
He didn't understand how he fell into what he calls his "black hole" until he was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and given the same treatment as Vietnam War sufferers.
"You don't beat it, you just learn to deal with it," he now says.
On Anzac Day 1986 Detective Sergeant Mark Wylie was shot and badly wounded during the arrest of one of the bomb suspects.
He became hyper-vigilant, obsessively checking locks and fearing he could be the target of an underworld hit.
He fought his demons nearly every day until finally the demons won. Last month he took his own life.
At his funeral I spoke to many ex-cops who knew of former workmates heading down some very dark paths.
While the force has made a massive investment in mental health and now employs 10 psychologists and two social workers there is no one caring for former police.
And according to the head of the unit, Dr Alexandra West, some serving police who need help are not using the system because of false fears they will be branded as mentally unreliable.
While the unit deals with up to 1000 referrals a year the police who took their own lives were not receiving departmental counselling at the time. "None of them were on our radar," West says.
Her team receives about 75 crisis calls a year, with a disturbing number considered to be suicide risks. "With early intervention we are getting good results," she says.
The psychologists have the difficult job of maintaining patient confidentiality while ensuring a police officer in mental crisis is not assigned duties that require a firearm.
Former Detective Sergeant Paul Walshe had built such an impressive CV he looked like a star in the making. A Churchill Fellowship on informer management and three years with the Australian Crime Commission put him on the career fast-track.
But after 17 years in the job Walshe became an expert at hiding his deteriorating mental health from even his closest workmates.
"I was frightened of being found out and being labelled as someone who couldn't be trusted. I didn't want to see a sign on the gun safe saying 'Do not issue this man with a firearm without speaking to the Sergeant', which is a sure sign you have lost the plot."
When he reached breaking point Walshe spent two years in and out of hospital and twice tried to kill himself. It was then he found his fear of being typecast as "loopy" was unfounded. "When it came out not one person let me down."
"You can be too proud or too scared to seek help and you sink lower and lower."
Floating on my back in the warm Gold Coast sea I didn't feel the rip drag me 500 metres from shore. I swam steadily but made no progress against the current as I started to think this was a particularly stupid way to die.
Embarrassed I refused to raise my hand to alert the beach patrol because real men don't ask for help. (One eventually came out on a paddle board, which probably prevented me becoming a trick question at Barwon Prison trivia nights.)
Sometimes the bravest act is to simply put up your hand.
Laurie Fox wanted to be a policeman since he was a kid and two failed applications did nothing to curb his enthusiasm.
It was third time lucky, according to his partner Belinda Sowter.
"He loved his job and was good at it," she says.
And then the father of two little boys started to unravel. "It came on very suddenly, over six weeks. He was such a rational, logical thinker and then he snapped and he wasn't making any sense."
And yet he continued to function as a Tactical Intelligence Officer at the St Kilda Road police complex. "Laurie was very good at concealing his problems at work and then would come home and just crumble."
They would talk for hours and she urged him to get professional help. "He made an appointment with a psychologist in welfare but cancelled it because he was worried about it going on his record."
"Foxy" was rostered to work through Christmas of 2012 and so Belinda took their two children to her parents' home in Queensland.
When Fox rang her one night sounding so deeply depressed she offered to fly straight home. But he said he wanted his family to have a great holiday, adding that he wouldn't do anything silly.
On New Year's Eve (the day before they were due home) he typed emails to his boys and another to Belinda saying he didn't want to be a burden.
He wrote a letter for his bosses and placed a note to the police who would find him in his back pocket along with his police badge and driver's licence for identification.
On the table he left a will and superannuation report.
In one of his last acts he sent Belinda a text saying he loved her, but couldn't carry on. He said he had fed the cats and the fish, but was sorry he hadn't been able to clean the house. It was 10.07pm.
When he didn't answer his phone Belinda started to drive to a local police station, but stopped when she saw police conducting random breath tests.
They notified Melbourne and a patrol unit was sent straight to the house.
It was too late. Senior Constable Laurie Fox, the friendly family man who always wanted to be a policeman, had hanged himself from a tree in the backyard. He was 32 and had been in the police force for just over seven years.
In his note he asked the police to shut the garage door so the family's pet chickens wouldn't escape.
Belinda Sowter has videoed her story for the police department in the hope other cops who are struggling will seek help and choose a different option.
"If I can stop one other police family going through this then it is worth it."
For help or information call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251 or Lifeline on 131 114, or visit beyondblue.org.au