Michelle Merritt suffered more than 150 seizures in a day in 2015.
At the time, Merritt had investigated crimes against children since July 2011 as a detective for the Manassas Police Department, including murder, physical and sexual abuse and neglect. She said she worked about 150 cases a year.
“I think it was my body saying ‘I’m shutting down,’” she said.
Although Merritt eventually retired from the police department on medical leave, she wants to raise awareness about mental health issues to help other police officers who she thinks may not be receiving enough support.
Merritt was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war or combat, rape or other violent personal assualt, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
Merritt’s symptoms included insomnia, hair loss and significant weight loss. She was haunted by memories of dead children she had seen.
“I would rather have had a broken arm or leg than go through what I went through,” Merritt said.
Since 2016, Merritt has worked as a real estate agent with The Merritt Team at Pearson Smith Realty in Woodbridge.
“I still get to help people,” she said. “It’s helping people, but not in a time of crisis, but a time of joy.”
She reflects on her time with the Manassas Police Department and wishes she had more mental health support. After being hospitalized for having seizures, she had in-home health care for six months, and for the first three months of that someone had to be with her at all times. Merritt began recovering through physical and mental therapy. She still suffers from seizures but said they are less frequent.
During that time, she felt like “the department just kind of threw me away.” Merritt hired an attorney to help her receive worker’s compensation, which she did receive.
“If I was shot, I would’ve gotten support,” Merritt said. “It was like it was my fault.”
She said she wants to share her story to let other people know they can find help if they are suffering from trauma.
“If you’re hurting, it just becomes your new normal,” she said. “You don’t even realize how drastically you’ve changed, because it’s your new normal.”
Merritt said she encourages anyone who is suffering from trauma to open up and talk to someone.
“You’re not weak, because you want to talk.”
After investigating two homicides of young children within a few months, Merritt told her superiors she needed help with the number of cases she was investigating. She said she was told, “You’re the best, what will we do if you leave?”
She also felt pressure from herself to push through her pain and continue working.
“There are people who need answers because their kids are hurt,” she said.
Eventually, she said, she realized the police department was “going to run me until my legs fall off.”
By June 2015, she said she was experiencing weight loss, bleeding gums and hair loss.
“I’m not mentally clear,” she said. “I'm not OK. I was so drained. I wasn’t sleeping.”
With young children of her own, Merritt said she became obsessed about checking on her kids.
“I started making our bedtime routine longer,” she said. “I was scared to let my kids go to school or daycare.”
During her time as a detective, Merritt saw a therapist. She looks back at that time and now wants mental health exams to be required at least once a year for police officers and more frequently for detectives working crimes against children or other sensitive topics. That way, no one would be singled out as struggling, and police department employees could still receive mental health help if they needed it.
“I told my husband, when I go to work, it felt like I was standing in the middle of the room, screaming, and no one heard me,” she said. “I’ve always said if my story can help save one person then that’s enough.”
Manassas Police Chief Douglas Keen confirmed that Merritt was a police officer and then a detective with the department but said Merritt was not solely working cases involving crimes against children. Keen said the department has multiple people working those cases.
Keen said for nine of the 10 years he has been chief, thedepartment has brought in a psychologist who specializes in law enforcement to meet quarterly or at least twice a year with detectives.
In addition, about a year ago, the department hired a counselor who is available to all employees. Funding for a counselor can be limited, Keen said, so the department is looking for ways to reprioritize funds to continue funding the counselor position.
Keen said he’s had conversations with employees about mental well-being.
“The topic is very open,” he said. “It’s not something we’re hiding. We’re here to help you and get the resources you need to be resilient at home and work.”
Keen said he recently surveyed the department’s 125 full-time employees about mental health resources. One question was whether an employee would want the department to eliminate a sworn position in order to hire a full-time mental health professional. About 80% said no.
“I’ve had open sessions with staff to allow input,” he said. “The issue is you have to build trust with staff to know what their needs are to make it better. It has to be face to face. We have their best interests at heart.”
Keen said first responders are starting to acknowledge that mental health issues exist. Keen said the required annual physical check-up includes questions about mental health. He said he is also supportive of employees who need to take time off work to receive mental health help.
Last year, after an officer-involved shooting, Keen said police officers from Prince William County who are part of a peer support team spoke to Manassas police officers. Keen said he wants his department to work with the county to be a part of the peer support team.
Merritt said mandatory mental health exams would help decrease the number of complaints against police. She also wants police departments to offer mental health training so officers can learn to recognize symptoms within themselves and their colleagues.
“I have a great business,” Merritt said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I’m not triggering all the time. I’m helping people achieve their dreams. I want police officers to read that you can do something else that’s not hurting you every day.”