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I've struggled with mental health since boyfriend died after Capitol riots. Fix system.

Depression consumed me. Every therapist I called in my network was booked. My insurance refused to cover others. As much as I suffered, I know there are many who have struggled more.

It has been nearly eight months since my boyfriend Brian Sicknick's death, and I still can’t bring myself to move his jeans from where he last hung them before he left for work at the Capitol on Jan. 6. His clothes still hang neatly in the closet, just as they were the day before he died.

Brian, who worked as an officer with the Capitol Police for years, collapsed after being sprayed with chemicals by rioters. He passed away the next night. 

My depression comes in waves. And my mind can go to dark places if I don’t utilize the coping skills I know as a licensed clinical social worker.

Of all the things being talked about related to Jan. 6, mental health care (especially how difficult the system is to navigate) is the least discussed. But to help officers and loved ones like me move on, it should be what we're talking about the most.

Navigating the health care system

After 11 years together, Brian and I decided to take a break six months before he died. Or rather I decided it was time for us to get married or briefly split to think about why we weren't. He helped me move out of the home we lived in together. But we were still as close as ever. After he died, I was filled with regret and moved back to be as close to him as possible. 

I keep thinking “if only,” “why?” and “I wish.” If only I had decided to stay. I wish he was still alive. Why did we spend his last six months on Earth apart, when I could have been with the love of my life every day? Those kinds of thoughts can drive a person to madness.

As intimate partners, there were things Brian and I told each other that we didn’t even share with our families. We had just spent a beautiful Christmas together cooking and watching movies.

I was used to treating several patients a week, but after Brian died, I needed therapy to process my grief. Trying to find a mental health professional during a pandemic forced me to confront, as so many people do every day, the difficulties that still exist within our medical system when it comes to getting mental health treatment.  

Every therapist I called in my insurance network was booked. I was given referrals to therapists who had openings, but my insurance would not cover the cost of treatment. 

I knew that as much as I was in need, there were people who were struggling even more.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 30 million people in America who need mental health care, go without. This dynamic exists in spite of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which was supposed to protect mental health benefits

Stressors, triggers and trauma 

Since Jan. 6, four officers have committed suicide, pushed by the aftermath of what they experienced on that horrible day and insufficient help dealing with the physical and mental trauma they carried.  

As in my experience, many people have a hard time finding a mental health provider in network and are either forced to go without treatment or pay out of pocket. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States – a stat that is unacceptable.

Policing is an incredibly stressful profession. Those stressors can trigger potential genetic vulnerabilities such as depression, anxiety and substance use disorders. And under those circumstances, suicide risk can jump dramatically.

We must recognize that without good mental health, there is no such thing as good health in America. This is not only incredibly important for our country as a whole, but for the brave men and women who put their lives on the line to protect our democracy and the loved ones who suffer in the aftermath of tragedy.

Sandra Garza is a licensed clinical social worker in Northern Virginia. 

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