'It's OK, not being OK': Local woman opens up about stigma surrounding suicide

NOW: ’It’s OK, not being OK’: Local woman opens up about stigma surrounding suicide

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- First responders can often be the difference between life or death in so many situations. But that tough work can take a real toll on their mental health. In fact, according to the group "First Help," on average, more than 200 first responders have taken their own lives in the United States each year since 2018. 

CBS 58's Jessob Reisbeck is taking a very real look at the issue through the eyes of Amanda Rae Button, who has felt this terrible loss, and now works tirelessly to support others. 

Amanda Rae CBS 58

Mobcraft Brewery in Milwaukee was one of Amanda Rae and Christopher Button's favorite spots. Now, instead of Chris by her side, Amanda Rae brought along Penelope, her psychiatric service dog. 

Amanda Rae and Chris met about ten years ago. Chris was a deputy with the Waukesha County Sheriff's Department, and Amanda Rae was a firefighter and his dispatcher. 

"I think of someone that was super intelligent and made you think, someone that made you laugh. His laugh was infectious," said Amanda Rae. 

After dating for a couple years, Amanda Rae got pregnant. At the same time, despite his infectious laugh, Chris -- now a lieutenant -- was battling mental health issues and struggling at work. 

"His work started slipping," said Amanda Rae. "We didn't know that he was suffering from PTSD or depression. We just knew that something wasn't right." 

It didn't get better. On April 20, 2018, it got a whole lot worse. 

"Instead of sitting him down and saying, 'This isn't you, let's figure out what's going on.' They forced him to resign," said Amanda Rae. 

Exactly one week later, April 27, 2018, Kennedy Button was born -- Chris' fourth child, first with Amanda Rae. Eight days after that, Chris and Amanda Rae got married at McKinley Beach. Still, somehow, those happy times were no match for the demons Chris was battling. 

"He said, 'I don't know what to do anymore, being a cop was my whole life. I don't know how to be a dad; I don't know how to be a husband; I don't know how to be a son; I don't know how to be a friend. All I know how to do is be a cop,'" Amanda Rae said. 

Christopher Button CBS 58

On July 16, 2018, Chris couldn't take it anymore. 

"He had waited until I went to bed the night before. Our daughter was only about 2-2.5 months old. He took a few items with him, one being his service weapon, and he took his own life," said Amanda Rae. "I blame April 20 because that changed everything." 

Wauwatosa Police Chief James MacGillis is an outspoken supporter of the mental health of first responders. 

"We can either take it a disciplinary route, but we would prefer to take it in a employee support route. That's the lane that we really want to go," said Chief MacGillis. "We have to make sure our first responders are healthy, happy, and whole so they can go out and do the mission of protecting other people because if they're not in a good place, our community is going to suffer." 

Chief MacGillis has lost over a dozen friends and colleagues to suicide during his 29 years in law enforcement. 

"We have to make it more comfortable for cops to talk about it, and help them also develop those coping skills and work through that. What we see is not normal," said MacGillis. 

Four years after Amanda Rae's husband took his own life, Chris' best friend and former partner Garrett Grulke -- another member of the Waukesha County Sheriff's Department -- who Amanda Rae says was forced to resign, did the same thing. 

"They are currently on my mantle together, the two guys," said Amanda Rae. "I see them hand in hand. I never thought it would be this way. Nobody does but I'm so grateful. I'm so grateful that I had the opportunity to love them, and they loved me back." 

CBS 58

Today, Amanda Rae has found love again -- engaged to her fiancé, Justin. 

"He loves Chris as if he knew him. He honors Chris as if he knew him," said Amanda Rae. 

Kennedy Button is now 6 years old, and a spitting image of her father. 

"God knew what he was doing when he gave me her, for sure," said Amanda Rae. 

Amanda Rae now works with organizations around the country, including the one she started, "Unbuttoning the Stigma," raising awareness of first responder mental health and supporting families that have lost loved ones to suicide. 

"When I stop breathing is when I will stop because they deserve someone to stand up for them," said Amanda Rae. "I want to give them that voice. I want to give them that respect and dignity that they can be OK, not being OK."

CBS 58 reached out to the Waukesha County Sheriff's Department multiple times for an interview with Sheriff Eric Severson, but they never agreed to talk. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health, pick up a phone and dial 988 for 24-hour help. 

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