Tony Ambrose, Oak Park’s police chief, was no stranger to mental health crises when tragedy struck his own family. Thirteen years ago, when he was a commander on the force, he was one of the first two police officers in the state to attend a Crisis Intervention Training class. He brought what he learned in the week-long training course back to the force, where it became an important tool in helping officers deal with families in crisis due to mental illness or suicide.
When his teenage son died by suicide while in high school, Ambrose says he never saw it coming. “I’ve been involved with mental illness education years before my son, and people always say to look for signs. I’ve attended numerous classes, and I never saw it coming.”
Noting his son’s ready smile for everyone he met, and the hours they spent together every week driving to and from school and hockey practices, Ambrose says, “You always go through the stages of what did I miss? What were the signs? I couldn’t think of any.”
After the loss of his son, Ambrose turned to counseling and regular church attendance to try to find some comfort. He also says that as tough as it is to admit it, he came to the realization that anybody who commits suicide has some form of mental illness.
When Kimberly Knake, executive director of Metro Suburban NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness), asked Ambrose to speak about his personal experience, he wasn’t sure if the timing was right. “I always thought that I wouldn’t talk about it until I retired. I decided that I would do it. Your life changes forever when this happens, but to me, there’s no other option but to help make sure that other people don’t get put in the same position I’m in.”
Today, Ambrose serves on the board of Oak Park-based West Suburban NAMI and Oak Park’s Thrive Counseling Center and has grown more comfortable sharing his son’s story. He’s spoken at MacNeal Hospital and the Nineteenth Century Club about his experience and about the need to seek out professional help. He thinks that people can find comfort in talking to someone who understands what they are going through, but many also need to be reminded that it’s alright to reach out.
“People have to understand, this is very traumatic. You need people to talk to. Somebody who is trained and can offer you a different outlet can make a difference.”
Ambrose remembers his son Anthony lovingly, calling him a polite young man who never caused any problems. “He touched a lot of lives, and I truly believe he did his job here. I feel his mission was to touch a lot of people. He accomplished that, and he’s gone.”