Advocacy gives meaning to tragedy
Marie Bartos has a purpose in life.
First, on Oct. 12, 2003, she hit rock bottom. On that day, she witnessed the suicide of her husband, Stephen Milkovits, a Northampton Borough Police officer.
"I never knew why I was still here," she said. "Now I do."
The reason is to bring awareness to the issue of suicide and to advocate for those who can't advocate for themselves.
"The people who die by suicide – they're so good at hiding what they're feeling," Bartos said, adding she had no idea what her husband had been contemplating until he died.
Bartos also wants to advocate for police officers, whose suicide rates are double that of the general population, according to several websites, including Tears of a Cop, www.tearsofacop.com, and officer.com, both of which are dedicated to issues related to law enforcement.
Further, a third of police officers suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and most don't even realize it, says Tears of a Cop.
"Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may come on silently. It is a very progressive illness that becomes more severe year after year if left untreated. It will eventually consume those victims who have experienced trauma beyond what their minds are able to comprehend or deal with at one time," reads the site.
"Occasionally we see something traumatic," Bartos said. "[Police] see it every day. It has to affect you somehow."
Bartos said extensive support exists for the families of police officers who die in the line of duty, but not for families of those who die by suicide.
"When a police officer dies by suicide, it is in the line of duty. And so many people don't understand that," she said.
To that end, she has become involved with the Lehigh Valley chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Through AFSP, she spoke at a training session on crisis intervention for Northampton County first responders.
"I said, 'I am here for you. I know there's a lot you don't talk about,'" she remembers saying. "'I know what your family will go through if you don't.'"
Bartos described suicide as an "epidemic," saying it affects all people regardless of age, race, socio-economic status or the state of their physical health. Most people who die by suicide aren't terminally ill, she said.
Erasing the stigma means people need to start talking about the issue, especially those who are suffering.
"We've got to start the conversation," she said. "You're not weak, you're not crazy."
Bartos is sponsoring an event, Ride for a Voice, Sept. 21 at Becky's Drive-In in Lehigh Township.
The event is a motorcycle rally designed to highlight issues related to suicide, especially in police officers. Bartos has invited many area police departments, including Northampton.
Food will be available for purchase but no alcohol will be permitted because alcohol lessens inhibition. Milkovits had been drinking the day he died, she said.
"When he died I didn't know who I was. I was Steve's wife. I wasn't Marie," Bartos said.
Now, however, she believes what happened has a purpose because she can make a difference for others.
"My life is better now than it probably ever has been," she said. "The more knowledge you have the better equipped you are to do what you have to do to be well."
For more information about Ride for a Voice, call 484-330-0912 or email mariebartos11@gmail .com.