Cops and Suicide: A Father’s Thoughts
My son John was a San Jose, Calif. police officer who took his life in December of 2008. He was a cop for 19 years. He had been through a long and bitter divorce. He was depressed, angry and worried about the impact of the divorce on his daughters, anxious about his finances, and feeling like a failure.
Until the last year of his life, my son was strong, secure, vibrant and healthy. But in that last year, he went down so fast that he didn’t realize it and neither did I. But I have found that is a common profile among cops who lose their way. And I have learned a few other things.
Good cops are highly functioning in all aspects of their life. They are trained to bring control out of chaos. They are willing to risk everything during a critical incident, not just because their training kicks in, but because they know the incident will come to closure.
But these characteristics can be lethal when a cop gets depressed. They think they are not functioning well and the depression increases. They are frustrated because they can’t control things. They begin to despair because they think their pain—their critical incident—will never end. That’s what happened to my son.
In July he told me, “I’m not any good at work or as a father.” In September he told me, I hate that I can’t control things.” In November he told me, “This will never end.” At the time I didn’t know what that meant. But if I ever hear that from someone now, I will know exactly what it means. And if you ever hear it from one of your partners or team members, you should know what it means.
If this can happen to my son it can happen to any cop. And it does. The Badge of Life, run by former cops and dedicated to preventing police suicide, reports that there are on the average 150 documented police suicides per year.
Also, for every suicide, there are a thousand working cops with post traumatic stress disorder and another thousand struggling with serious depression, marital issues or alcoholism.
The Badge of Life also points out that more cops die from suicide than from homicide or duty related accidents.
Kevin Gilmartin is a former cop and author of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement. His main message is that the very things that make you an effective cop and keep you safe on the job, can screw up your personal life, and in some cases destroy you.
Hypervigilance on the job produces a healthy amount of cynicism and mistrust, which is necessary for street survival, but can be destructive for personal relationships and family life.
Dan Willis, a retired La Mesa, Calif. police captain, recently wrote Bulletproof Spirit. Willis states, “To be able to survive the stress and trauma of your work, you have to increase your self-awareness so that you will know when your spirit is suffering from the toxic effects of the job.”
I want to advocate for the value of a relationship with a mental health professional. The key here is not just overcoming the stigma of counseling, but also to have therapists available who have been vetted, who are knowledgeable about police work, who have done ride alongs and who have gone through FATS training, so they at least can know as much as any civilian can know about the reality of police work. That way the first few sessions are not wasted with a lot of stupid or biased questions.
The idea is to have a relationship with a mental health professional during good times, so that if something goes wrong, that professional can get right to work with an effective treatment plan.
I know some in law enforcement may resist this, but I believe if my son could have had a relationship with a mental health professional before he started to go down hill, he might still be alive.
Also, the police culture that says asking for help is a sign of weakness has to change. With what is known about how cops can be helped, and with everything that cops face in their work today, asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Asking for help is a sign of wisdom and courage.
Finally, cops always train for the obvious risks in their work. Today they have to train just as hard and just as effectively to address the hidden risks in their work.
Brian Cahill retired in late 2008 as the executive director of San Francisco Catholic Charities after 40 years in social services. A few days after his retirement, his oldest son, a veteran San Jose, Calif. police officer, took his life.
Since 2011 he has been a volunteer suicide prevention trainer for San Francisco Police Department and for San Jose Police Department. He has spoken to various police departments throughout Northern California. He is also a volunteer in prison ministry, co-leading a weekly spirituality group for eighteen San Quentin lifers.
His writing on cops and suicide has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, National Catholic Reporter (NCR), and CNN Online. He is the author of Cops, Cons and Grace, A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Suicide, published in early 2018.