CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- “Break Every Chain” is a new film that tells the story of a Virginia police officer’s battle with alcoholism, depression, and devastating loss and how counseling and faith turned his life around.
It is based on the inspiring true story of Jonathan Hickory, a Charlottesville-area police officer.
Now traveling the country and debuting the film for police groups and law enforcement families, Hickory hopes his story will help others battling mental health and substance abuse issues.
“I really think it’s going to reach and speak to a lot of people and change a lot of lives,” Hickory says.
When Hickory joined the police force at the age of 23, he says the excitement of a new job, along with dedication to public service, made his life fulfilling.
When he married the love of his life a few months later, Hickory said he felt on top of the world.
However, within a few years of his career, Hickory says the demands of police work began to trigger feelings from the past.
“When I was younger, I experienced some childhood trauma,” Hickory says. “I lost my father at the age of 12 and never really faced that.”
As time passed, Hickory says his nightmares grew worse, especially after he was assigned to a new division in the police department.
“I became a fatal crash reconstruction officer, and I was really starting to see a lot more death and dealing with those families and it was really taking its toll on me,” Hickory says. “ I thought I was the only one struggling and that I was somehow broken or weak or different.”
Hickory says he turned to alcohol to help him cope with his emotions and that’s when his personal and professional life began to spiral downward.
“I was at my rock bottom, the worst, the heaviest, darkest time in my entire life,” Hickory says. “It was May of 2015 that I almost took my own life. There was a series of events that I wrote about in my book that led me to the point where I just didn’t feel that there was any other solution, other than taking my own life.”
Hickory’s story reflects a growing, but silent epidemic in this country. According to Blue H.E.L.P, a mental health organization for police officers, nearly 90 officers in the U.S. have died by suicide this year.
Chesterfield Police Chief Col. Jeffrey Katz, says suicide is a devastating reality in the law enforcement community, where society expects officers to be “super-human,” and fix every problem.
“You try like mad to ask yourself how can we prevent this? What else can we do? What else could we have done,” Katz says.
Katz says he’s continually working in his department to change the damaging stigma that often prevents many first responders from seeking help when they face mental health challenges.
“It’s a profound responsibility, but there are emotions tied to it and we have to learn to deal with those emotions,” Katz says. “Because if you don’t identify the feeling, you can’t manage and address it and so if you keep suppressing it, it’s going to come out, but not on your terms.”
In Chesterfield, a dedicated wellness coordinator makes sure that officers have access to department psychologists, chaplains, exercise programs and peer support groups. However, Katz says some officers are reluctant to use the resources available to them, for the fear of being judged.
“We have to lean on each other and we have to be willing to be vulnerable,” Katz says. “That’s the real message I want to make sure people are getting. In a time where society seems so angry a lot of the time, it’s difficult to say ‘I’m going to make myself vulnerable,’ but that’s what courage is about, that’s what strength is about, that’s what confidence is about.”
Hickory says allowing himself to be vulnerable took a lot of time and healing. While he admitted the truth to peers in a men’s support group at his church, Hickory says he originally excluded a key component in his recovery.
“One thing I originally left out of the book was that I saw a police psychologist for five or six months,” Hickory says. “But I left it out because I was so ashamed.”
Hickory says he’s since re-edited his book so that others know there’s always hope in despair and that there is no shame in reaching out for help. He says his book and the film are true reflections of his life.
“I really feel God laid it on my heart at that moment,” Hickory says. “It’s changing lives and it’s making a difference.”
This segment is sponsored by WHOA Behavioral Health.