My Cause

Saving the Savers

By Christian Chensvold

Brian Cahill, an expert in cops and suicide, illustrated by Olivia Wise.

When you’re in trouble, police officers often risk their lives to help you. But who helps them in the darkness of despair, when they are tempted not to save lives but to take their own?

In 2008, Brian Cahill, the former executive director of Catholic Charities/CYO and a retired director of social services for the city of San Francisco, lost his son, John — a San Jose police officer — to suicide. To honor John’s life and to try to help others, Cahill became an expert in cops and suicide, spending five years performing weekly suicide prevention training with the SFPD.

“Some departments are dealing with it and some not,” he says, “but it’s an issue that sadly has made itself present within law enforcement.” The New York Police Department, in particular, has made tragic headlines this year, losing 10 officers to suicide since January.

A twist of fate brought Cahill a letter of condolence from 25 prisoners at San Quentin, which led to counseling work with men serving life sentences. “It was a beautiful and unexpected source of grace,” says Cahill, who wrote about the gesture in his 2018 book Cops, Cons, and Grace: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Suicide. Eight years of counseling others has been a blessing and a curse, Cahill says, allowing him to help others but eventually taking an emotional toll.

There are plenty of local organizations working to address the issue. Cahill highlights the San Rafael-based First Responder Support Network (frsn.org), which helps first responders and their families recover from stress and critical incidents.

“I believe they do the best work in the country,” he says. “It’s the organization I have the most respect for.”

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