Introduction

At around 3:35 pm on Friday, May 5th, 2006, I contemplated suicide. 

Why?

I had just failed a lie detector test. I tried to cheat my way through the test to prove my innocence of criminal charges. Following the failed test, my lawyer told me that I should expect to serve five years in federal prison. 

Many people experience mental health challenges when going through the criminal justice process. Whether they are a target, subject, or witness in a criminal investigation, the weight of the process often triggers severe emotional and mental distress.

Unfortunately, for a sizeable percentage of people under criminal investigation or indictment, the mental health struggle reaches a point that includes suicidal thoughts. During the struggle, it becomes easier for some people to imagine that suicide is perhaps the fastest way to end the shame, guilt, and pain that inevitably comes with a criminal indictment or investigation. 

Discussion

We work with people going through the criminal justice process, which is often one of the most excruciating of times in their lives. This is a time when they may need a lot of emotional and mental health support, and even the help of suicide prevention specialists.

Paul Bertrand is my former FBI agent, i.e., the FBI agent who worked my criminal case and interviewed me during the investigation. Paul spent many years managing suicide prevention initiatives at the FBI. Recently, I had the chance to sit down with Paul to discuss suicide prevention awareness and prevention.

You will not want to miss Paul's unique tips and insights for how criminal defendants and their loved ones can navigate the criminal justice process, especially the mental health challenges accompanying the journey. 

At a minimum, we want people to know when to reach out for professional help for themselves or a loved one. And while much of the discussion is in the context of the criminal justice process, applying these tips and insights is universal and can help people face many different challenges and trauma.

Paul's FBI Background

Paul worked for the FBI for 23 years, from 1998 until 2021. After serving in many different roles, Paul got into suicide intervention, taking a job as the Regional Program Manager for Employee Assistance. In that role, Paul was responsible for the mental health of all FBI employees, including oversight for assisting with day-to-day stressors, crisis intervention, support after traumatic experiences, and the like. 

During Paul's tenure, suicide intervention at the FBI centered around raising awareness. Awareness campaigns include posters and publishing where employees can get help, encouraging employees to reach out if they think they may need help, etc.

However, what Paul noticed was missing was training on how to actually help people when struggling with mental health and thoughts of suicide. So Paul went to training so he could bring the training back to the FBI. He got the skills to talk to people contemplating suicide and develop a plan to keep them safe.

Paul loved the idea of empowering people about suicide intervention. Then they could help not only their colleagues but other people they deal with in the ordinary course of FBI business. Witnesses, criminal suspects, and defendants are among the many people FBI agents regularly deal with while performing their job duties.

Paul realized the impact that suicide intervention training could have. FBI employees contemplate suicide. Those agents, 14,000 in all, regularly talk to victims, targets, subjects, and witnesses in criminal matters who could also need suicide intervention when they come in contact with the FBI. Indeed, visits from the FBI can trigger people and exacerbate preexisting situations.

In his experience, Paul saw how criminal defendants are especially vulnerable to suicidal thoughts before sentencing when the fear of the worst possible outcome and the fear of the unknown can be almost overwhelming. 

Paul brought suicide intervention training to the FBI, and today the FBI has over 3000 employees trained in suicide intervention. 

Prison is Not a Life Sentence

People under indictment or criminal investigation can never forget this: A prison sentence does not have to become a life sentence. 

What does that mean? 

The statistics show that over 90% of criminal defendants end up taking a guilty plea and facing a sentencing judge. A great majority end up with what people most fear: having to serve a term in prison. The odds make going to prison inevitable for most federal criminal defendants. However, a prison term has a beginning and an end date. Through introspection and self-analysis, defendants can learn to leave their sentence there and not allow a defined prison term to become a never-ending sentence for the rest of their lives.

So, if the judge's sentence is a year or two years, we tell people to serve that time and not a day more. In other words, don't allow that year to become forever. 

Spreading this message is vital so that the prospect of prison does not automatically compel people to act on suicidal thoughts. We know, we have been there. We are familiar with the stress of waiting in fear of the unknown, filled with pain, regret, shame, and prospects of future pain, shame and regret. 

Still, a prison sentence does not have to become a life sentence. Whether it does is mostly in control of the criminal defendant. 

When the FBI Shows Up

Typically, the shame, shock, fear, denial, and embarrassment of a criminal case begin when the FBI shows up. 

FBI agents know it can be very stressful to learn that you or someone you love is involved in a criminal matter. And, contrary to popular belief, Paul says that the FBI agents' goal is not to exacerbate or make the emotional and mental anguish even worse.

Paul personally learned this lesson in the trenches. After a year of problematic dealings with a criminal target who lied, denied, and played hard to get, Paul finally showed up to confront him with overwhelming evidence. When the defendant grasped the reality of his situation, he became incredibly distraught. While the defendant did come clean, took responsibility, and signed a statement, Paul also had to confront the fact that the man had also become suicidal in response to his new reality.

That's when Paul recognized he also had a suicide intervention role to play. Regardless of the circumstances, Paul emphasized, it was not the end. It was the first day of the rest of his life. By explaining the next steps that would follow in the criminal case and taking the time to make the process clear and concrete, Paul was able to help the defendant realize that he could make it through. 

Even though the collateral consequences that accompany a criminal conviction are painful and make people feel like they are too much to bear, finding some level of acceptance is crucial. As those who have been through the journey know, criminal defendants have to embrace the reality of their situation, feet firmly planted on the ground. Allowing their thoughts to spiral out of control and catastrophize is very damaging. 

Criminal defendants often need help from those around them, whether lawyers, family and friends, and yes, even FBI agents. These are all people who can help a person shake off the runaway thoughts that threaten to overtake them, which is easier said than done. Even more, these are the people who will be in a position to notice whether professional mental health and suicide intervention assistance is needed.

Loss of Control

Runaway thoughts can become suicidal when people focus on the fact that they are losing control of their lives. Becoming the target of a criminal investigation or indictment can trigger such thoughts. 

Taking time to challenge whether there is nothing in the person's control can be helpful. 

Paul agrees that, in his experience, people who feel they have lost control of their lives tend to have more suicidal thoughts and feelings than others. In a criminal setting, the loss of control stems from fear, including the massive fear of the unknown. In fact, Paul shares, the fear of the unknown for most people is worse than the reality, but in the moment, it is tough for criminal defendants and their loved ones to appreciate that fully.

In other words, what will actually happen in a criminal case is often not as bad as defendants presume. The outcomes are worse in people's heads than they end up in reality. 

That is not to say that the stress, divorce, job loss, forfeitures, loss of identity, loss of belonging, etc. are not real. Not at all. All of that is happening. But when people get caught in an unending loop of awfulizing thoughts about all the bad things that will happen, matters can only worsen. It is hard to live like that. 

In times like that, people report thinking that their loved ones are better off without them, without the shame and burden they represent. That is where mental health intervention can be helpful.

Suicidal Thoughts Are More Common Than We Realize

One of Paul's key messages is that thoughts of suicide are more common than people think. For example, Paul cites research that shows 1 in 20 people will have suicidal thoughts in any given two-week period. If we extrapolate that statistic to the FBI setting, where 36,000 people work, it means that 1800 people at the FBI have thoughts about suicide at a given time. That is sobering.

In our society, suicide ideation is considered a deep dark secret that people don't tell anyone about; not sharing the struggle can have devastating consequences. Again, suicide thoughts are much more common than we realize

Paul believes that realizing how common suicide thoughts are throughout the population and normalizing the fact that humans have these thoughts can help prevent more people from acting on suicidal thoughts. 

As significant pressures build in someone's life, uncontrolled thoughts sometimes take over, including thoughts of suicide. During a criminal investigation or prosecution, people can become very dark about the negative consequences of a criminal conviction and the dark clouds hanging over their future. Still, Paul emphasizes his focus on preventing people from acting on any such suicidal thoughts. In Paul's estimation, the goal is to prevent people from ever moving beyond thoughts to taking action.

People Want to Live

As to this crucial goal of preventing people from taking action on suicidal thoughts, Paul reminds us that people actively try to avoid dangerous situations. People want to live. It is the human instinct. 

If so, it will take a lot to overcome that strong human impulse to live and act on suicidal thoughts in his experience. 

Again, there are significant factors that can put people facing prosecution over the edge. There is so much loss involved once the FBI shows up. People lose their careers, marriages, finances, families, stability, sense of belonging, friendships, and more. People lose their very identity about who they are in the world and how they fit in. 

Moreover, defending themselves and fighting their criminal case also takes a considerable toll on most people. Many people are triggered by the realization they may be fighting a losing battle.

Well-being Takes Work

Paul often repeats that well-being takes work

To overcome the emotional and mental health challenges of facing the criminal justice system takes work. It is not uncommon for people going through the criminal justice system for the first time to think it would be better to end it all. That is at the heart of the battle. Both the criminal defendant and the people around them have to understand this to be effective.

In criminal matters (or other challenging situations), Paul people have to take very deliberate steps to turn around their thinking about the challenge, such as:

  • look for meaning and purpose;
  • look to serve others, volunteering;
  • focus on belonging to something bigger than self, society, community, etc.;
  • look for a positive mentor and other positive relationships to focus on, as opposed to lost relationships;
  • look for what remains;
  • avoid the focus on what is lost, what the government took away (money, assets, freedom, etc.);
  • avoid intoxication with drugs and alcohol;
  • remember to count blessings and gratitude; things could always be worse.

In Paul's experience, these steps and others make the difference between criminal defendants who do well and bounce back after a criminal matter and those who struggle. Even in prison, while serving time, people can implement those steps and surround themselves with mentors and other positive relationships.  

Paul’s message that well-being takes work is entirely consistent with the message of acceptance and responsibility that our team proposes when working with anyone  going through the criminal justice process. It is not easy but to succeed through the journey people must embrace the principles of acceptance, accountability, attitude, aspirations, actions, awareness, achievement and appreciation. These are the principles we teach using Michael Santos’ Straight-A Guide. Learn more about the Straight-A Guide here.

There is a misconception that we can help people with positive affirmations and happy talk alone. There is nothing wrong with positive affirmations. The problem is that oftentimes, the dark clouds hanging over the lives of many criminal defendants are so intense that they cannot hear the positive affirmations and happy talk. Those trying to help them can become frustrated. 

Finding Meaning and Purpose While Struggling

I was struggling when I reported to federal prison to serve an 18-month sentence. I was blaming the government and others, excusing my conduct, and generally in a miserable place.

I am proof that finding a positive mentor, as I did in Micahel Santos, can have a tremendous impact. Michael helped me realize I could get better if I was willing to put in the work. 

As Paul says repeatedly, well-being takes work. 

So, with mentoring from Michael while in prison, I finally stopped blaming and excusing and took responsibility for what I'd done. I finally understood the value of introspection and realized we could be grateful for what remains rather than focus on what was lost. That was how my personal transformation began.

I found meaning and purpose when I stopped focusing on myself and started thinking about how I could help others. To help others, I had to show up, get out of bed, get out of my head, and become engaged in the universe again. 

Losing my prior life and identity made me isolate and wallow in self-pity. I'm not alone. That is quite common for people facing criminal prosecution. The opposite occurred once I accepted my reality and began to work on turning my life around. Slowly, through reading, writing, and introspection in prison, I began to experience positive emotions again, feel gratitude and appreciation for my blessings, and want to focus on others, not just myself. 

My work now is to help others learn from my journey. To that end, I am a big proponent of the message in the Straight-A Guide.

Click here to learn more about the Straight-A Guide and how it helped me overcome my struggle through the criminal justice process.

 

I asked Paul about the time he interviewed me during the criminal investigation in my case. Paul shares that after interviewing me so many years ago, he walked out feeling sad and disappointed. He realized that I was not ready to take responsibility and tell the truth so I could begin to turn my situation around. Instead, I lied and continued to deny responsibility while my lawyer sat there and watched. 

Over the years, I realized that what I wanted most at the time of that FBI interview was for the shame and pain I was feeling to end. Mistakenly, I imagined that denying and lying might help me get there. I was wrong. What I did would only prolong my pain. As long as I continued to focus on myself and lie, I only prolonged the inevitable and prolonged my pain. 

Paul’s Three-Prong Approach

Suicidal thoughts spiral when people imagine that suicide is a way out of the pain and misery they are feeling. No one wants to feel pain. But in denial, all we do is prolong and exacerbate the pain we don't want to endure.

From his experience, Paul sees three prongs that help people get through the pain and get to well-being: 

1-Deal with the criminal case honestly to remove the “case misery,” meaning, get good guidance on the criminal case and assess the situation with acceptance;

2-Get help with the immediate emotional and mental health struggles; and

3-Add positive attitudes and actions to build a bridge to well-being. Meaning, do things that provide you with new meaning and purpose, form new positive relationships, etc.

Conclusion

Suicide prevention for people going through the criminal justice system is important. The good news is that there is usually a long road between initial suicidal thoughts and someone taking a definitive step. We want to spread awareness that can help people at risk to get emotionally and mentally healthy, and then achieve well-being.

 

If you have thought about suicide, please know you are not alone and options do exist. To start, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.