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Alone in the wilderness

Forest ranger team walks to raise awareness of suicides on state land

October 18, 2019
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Ranger Lt. Chris Kostoss and friends took part in the annual North Country Walk to Fight Suicide (Out of the Darkness Community Walk) on Sunday, Sept. 29 at the Olympic Speedskating Oval to raise awareness of suicide.

Their team - Adirondack Rangers - consisted of forest rangers, friends and family and their dogs. Their goal was to raise awareness of suicides on the state-owned Forest Preserve in the Adirondack Park and among all first responders, including police officers and others who risk their lives in the line of duty. During his more than 20 years on the job, Kostoss does not recall any suicides reported among the DEC forest rangers, but he is concerned about the mental health of forest rangers - and all police officers - given the stresses they endure on the job. Raising the awareness of suicide prevention was part of his message.

Kostoss, who lives in Wilmington, is in charge of forest rangers in the High Peaks region. He said many people may not be aware of the number of suicides and suicide attempts made on Forest Preserve.

Article Photos

This is the Adirondack Rangers team that took part in the annual North Country Walk to Fight Suicide (Out of the Darkness Community Walk) on Sunday, Sept. 29 at the Olympic Speedskating Oval in Lake Placid. In the front row, from left, are Helene Watrous with Chaga, Chris Kostoss with Russell, and Emilee Hazelden with Eli. In the back row, from left, are Jenny Haas with Bark, Robin Shaver, and Mary Fehlner. They walked around Mirror Lake and back.
(News photo — Andy Flynn)

"If there was a way to prevent that, I think every bit of effort helps," he said. "And it's something that affects the rangers quite a bit over the course of their careers."

Forest rangers are asked to respond to a variety of search-and-rescue and search-and-recovery missions in and around state-owned land. They are sometimes first on the scene, and they never know what they will find.

On Sept. 15, for example, rangers helped state police look for a missing woman at Ausable Chasm. Police found the woman dead and said they believe she died by suicide.

"The ones that really affect you are the suicides that take place here, like the Australian soldier that came here," Kostoss said. "Then after the fact, you really see how the whole story unfolded. There's always warning signs and things that people recognize after the fact. A lot of these people come here and they stay in the area for a long time before they ultimately end up killing themselves on (Forest) Preserve."

In January 2014, 31-year-old Australian soldier Paul McKay died by suicide by hypothermia in the Forest Preserve. Forest ranger Scott Van Laer found his body on a shoulder of Scarface Mountain in Ray Brook after a nearly two-week search. McKay was on a break in between military assignments at the time of his disappearance. An Afghanistan war veteran, police had said that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In December 2011, a search party found the body of a 63-year-old man in the woods around Mount Jo in the town of North Elba after an intensive three-day search led by forest rangers. An autopsy revealed that the man died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His truck was parked off the Adirondack Loj Road about a half-mile away.

"The gore factor is always there with somebody that's been dead in the woods for some time," Kostoss said. "You know, the stress that you experience with helping the family get through some of these searches that last for weeks long with unknown outcomes. There's definitely a raised level of stress."

To help deal with that stress, Kostoss said the incident commanders try to cycle forest rangers through command posts and search functions, but sometimes they are involved with searches for weeks at a time with little time for a break.

"It's certainly a stress that has to be dealt with in one way or the other. Either you're going to deal with it on your own, or it can catch up with you and you're going to be forced to deal with it."

Having a network of friends and co-workers is important to help deal with the stress, according to Kostoss.

"Critical incident debriefs and stuff like that," he said. "It's one of the things that gets talked about a lot but not necessarily followed through. I know in the police officers' line of work ... nobody really wants to admit if they need help because they're worried they might lose their jobs ... so they don't get the help they need because they're afraid to ask for it."

There is formal help for forest rangers who need it, but they have to ask for it. Kostoss said most of the help he and his staff get usually comes from within the forest ranger community.

"Informal stuff with colleagues that are friends and have been on the job for a while. They help quite a bit. We don't really currently have anything really formalized on that. At times over the years, there's been some critical incident teams that can go around and help. Currently we're probably falling a little short of helping our officers out."

Kostoss said he recently spoke with DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos about the issue of suicide among first responders.

"I want to thank Basil Seggos for recognizing that September is Suicide Awareness Month," he said. "He was surprised at some of the statistics we talked about, police officers killing themselves, and he was very receptive and understanding and acknowledging that we have a big department and we can do more. Because it's not just the rangers. The conservation officers, too, are involved in tragedy, whether it's hunter-related shootings, even just being first upon a scene of a car accident. And over the course of 25 years, all those little things add up."

A spokesperson in the DEC press office in Albany said the department recognizes that its staff have recovered the victims of suicide from the Adirondacks and surrounding areas and that forest rangers assist other agencies in some of these incidents.

Asked what specific help is available to forest rangers to cope with the stress of their work, the spokesperson said, "DEC Forest Rangers are currently working to improve and strengthen the support network available for Forest Rangers. There is a Forest Ranger trained in to Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) in the State who is available. DEC also has an Employee Assistance Program that can provide referrals for Forest Rangers and others seeking counseling. In addition, DEC makes the counseling resources of other law enforcement and emergency response agencies available for Forest Rangers."

Kostoss said he uses exercise and his support network of friends to help cope with the stress of the job.

"I'm not an expert in the topic, and I haven't always been great with it, but I think I've got 21 years on now as a ranger and the older you get, you start thinking about the health of your co-workers ... how I can help a young ranger to maybe not experience some of the hardships that I have in my career," he said. "And it's an ongoing process. Rangers get together, and it's always war stories, and that's one of the ways we deal with it, kind of informally."


National trend

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that suicides in New York state have been increasing. In 2005, there were 1,189 deaths by suicide, and in 2017, there were 1,696.

Moreover, suicide rates have been increasing for most states, not just New York. From 1999 to 2017, the age-adjusted suicide rate increased 33% from 10.5 per 100,000 in 1999 to 14.0 in 2017 in the U.S., according to the CDC. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the nation.

A recent report issued by the Pentagon shows that the U.S. military's suicide rate among active-duty service members has increased over the past five years. In 2018, 541 service members died by suicide, including 325 active-duty troops. The suicide rate among active-duty service members was 24.8 per 100,000 service members, up from 21.9 in 2017 and 18.7 in 2013, according to the report.

The New York Police Department is having its own issues with suicide. In August, 56-year-old NYPD Officer Robert Echeverria shot himself in his Laurelton, Queens home. He died later at a nearby hospital. It was the ninth NYPD officer suicide this year, according to a report in The New York Times, which said that's "a record for a department that has struggled to identify troubled officers in its ranks and direct them toward help."

Kostoss said his walk around Mirror Lake on Sept. 29 for the North Country Walk to Fight Suicide was also to raise awareness for the suicides happening in police departments across the nation.

"I'm just really trying to bring awareness to the fact that this job is stressful and it requires a lot of work for people to manage their mental health. Hopefully we can help some officers get the help they need."



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