Story by Anne Donahue
Kristy Hommel knows firsthand how the right kind of police intervention can be not only life-saving but also life-affirming.
The positive supports she received in several past experiences with police while she was in crisis has led her directly to help with police training so that more officers can learn how to offer assistance effectively. She’s found receptive audiences, full of questions and eagerness to learn more.
Hommel has heard people say that mental health support is not the right role for police.
“Not suited for that?” she responds. “Then let’s give them that training.”
“I don’t think it’s impossible,” she added. “If they’re here to protect people, then that’s in their best interest to be able to talk to people.”
Hommel’s mental health story goes back to her childhood. She remembers blowing on dandelions, watching the drifting seeds and thinking, “I wish I could be going with them.”
She recalls having deep anxiety without knowing words to express it. She only knew that “something doesn’t feel right” compared to other family members, and even tried self-harm at a very young age, throwing herself off the jungle gym.
She was angry to wake up in the morning because she had prayed that she would not.
Hommel’s first serious suicide attempt came when she was 32 and self-medicating with alcohol, she said. She had walked several miles into the woods in Brattleboro after taking a combination of pills and alcohol.
“Somebody saw me wandering around,” Hommel said. By that time, she needed to be airlifted to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, where she woke up.
While she was there, a police officer from Brattleboro came up to Hanover to visit her.
“I thought I was in trouble,” she recollected. She felt “so ashamed and upset,” and “I said I was sorry.”
The officer replied, “You don’t have to apologize.”
“I just wanted to check up on you,” he told her. “You were in rough shape.”
Hommel’s second suicide attempt came after she had been sober for almost three years. She was hoping to have a child, so she reduced her medications and found herself spiraling down, she said.
“I’m tired of fighting this depression,” she said she felt. “I’m a burden. In the long run this is going to be better.”
Though she doesn’t remember anything, she later learned that she went the wrong way on I-91 and was heading for a bridge. She knocked down a highway sign and totaled her car. There was lighter fluid poured all over the car.
It was “incredibly embarrassing to wake up [in the hospital],” Hommel said. “Two officers [were] waiting to get blood collected.”
Hommel “hadn’t wanted to put anyone in danger” but said she hadn’t recognized that risk. Because she had sent text messages out in advance, her parents knew to tell the hospital to admit her to psychiatry.
Despite all that happened, the police “didn’t treat me like I was crazy.” They “could have humiliated me,” but did not. The way she was treated made a powerful impact, she said.
But only a few months later, after being discharged by the hospital as “safe enough to go home,” she was in crisis again.
She had argued with her husband, who said he couldn’t meet her level of need and left. The power had been out, and her phone went dead when she was in the process of reaching out to her therapist.
Hommel said she was not suicidal at that point but “was in bad shape.” When her therapist was unable to return her call, the therapist contacted the police to do a wellness check.
When the officer knocked at the door, she let him in reluctantly. They talked, and she shared her history.
“I don’t know what you could do to help me,” she told him. The officer talked with her for more than an hour.
Her parents lived four hours away, and the officer brought her father in by phone, she said. “If you are in a place where you need to go to the hospital, call me; I’ll get you there,” he told her.
The officer gave Hommel his card. He “didn’t talk down; didn’t make me feel small,” she said.
Hommel now feels that one of the best ways she can give back is by sharing her story with others. “It’s definitely very therapeutic” as well, she said.
She began with the “In Our Voices” speaker program with NAMI-VT, and then was asked if she would be willing to do a brief version for the collaborative training for police and first responders called “Team Two.”
The feedback “was great,” Hommel said, and she was told someone with lived experience was needed for police academy training sessions.
Her first time, there were not a lot of questions during the presentation. But afterward, an officer came up to her, she said.
“I have a daughter,” he told her. “I think she might have the same thing… I’m not sure.”
In more recent sessions, the presentations have gone overtime with all the questions. A typical one is “What’s the best we can do for you in a crisis?”
Hommel tells them that everyone is different and she recognizes that for the police, going into a situation “not knowing what they’re thinking, I can’t imagine; that’s got to be scary for you.”
“But it’s also scary for us,” she notes.
“I try to explain – the pain of living was almost worse than the pain of dying.”
She’s been asked, “while you were suicidal, what would have made you stop” before it got to an attempt? Were you showing signs? Could others have predicted it?
She tells them that even now, in her late thirties, she is only just learning her own signs and “to be in a place in my own recovery to know.”
People are really good at hiding it, she tells officers.
She “needed to hear there is hope” beyond that day.