There were 160 law enforcement suicides in 2018, 159 in 2017, and as I write this, we have had eight suicides for 2019. These are the ones we know about of course. It doesn’t include the ones which have been classified as an accidental death such as when cleaning one’s service weapon.
Suicide is a problem within law enforcement, and sadly it’s not going away. Suicide often gets overlooked, ignored, and avoided, fueled by stigma. Stigma that the person was weak, broken, or had something going on in their life that led to their suicide.
Those simplistic explanations ignore the fact that we failed them. We let these officers slip through the cracks and take their own life. We forget that widows and families are forgotten and left behind after an officer takes his or her own life. They are cut off from the Blue family, cut off from benefits, cut off from the support they were told would always be there for them. Why? Stigma, fear, misunderstanding. We need to start talking about police suicide and how to prevent it. The first step is knowing what to look for, even the non-obvious signs.
People ask me what drives someone to commit suicide. Why would they do it? They have such a great life, family, job, everything to live for. Well, yes, on the surface it certainly seems they do. Quite often I hear that the person showed no signs, that they would never have expected him or her to do this.
Many people may not show the typical signs of suicidal thought such as giving items away, talking about being a burden, feeling hopeless or having no purpose, or talking about death or suicide. Many people don’t see subtle signs, some don’t want to ask about what is going on, while others fear asking if someone is thinking about suicide may actually give them the idea.
In fact, it is often subtle signs that are often missed. Is the person not involved in family or social events as they once were? If they are attending social gatherings, do they seem like they are in another place, distracted? Family members have shared pictures with me of their loved ones who were there physically but not there emotionally. They did not realize it then, but the person had a fake smile or no smile at all. They may have been off to side of others in the picture, standing with their arms at their side while others were hugging, and some almost seemed like they were almost photoshopped in.
Other subtle signs are when the person stops doing things they normally would do such as working out or hanging out with friends. They make up excuses such as being tired, having other things to do, or they simply say not today. While they may come to work, they may be late, need to leave early, be more anxious, irritable and agitated easily.
Some of the risk factors for suicide include a family history of suicide, depression, alcohol and substance abuse, isolation, a feeling of being cut off from other people, barriers to accessing mental health treatment, loss (relational, social, work, or financial), physical illness, easy access to lethal methods, unwillingness to seek help because of the stigma attached to mental health and substance abuse disorders or to suicidal thoughts. Think about these risk factors and how many apply to law enforcement.
How many officers are willing to seek help without fear of reprisal? What many fail to realize is that seeking counseling outside of one’s department will not result in the loss of their badge and gun because they are doing it under their private insurance. And yes, some departments are very supportive and have internal peer support programs and EAP, but some departments are not.
The point is to seek treatment before things get worse, whether through your department or from outside counseling. If you had diabetes or a heart condition, would you treat it or would you allow it to get worse and take your life?
Ask yourself, do you have a colleague or partner who may be going through some rough times? Do they seem off? Not themselves? Will you ask them what is going on? What is wrong? Why not?
The biggest myth is that someone asking about suicide will give the person the idea. Guess what? It doesn’t. You are not going to give them an idea they already didn’t have. In fact, you may be the one thing keeping them alive to see the sunrise tomorrow. Asking someone how they are doing, how they are feeling, if they are thinking about dying will open a discussion and possibly save their life.
Nicholas Greco IV, M.S., B.C.E.T.S., C.A.T.S.M., F.A.A.E.T.S., is president and founder of C3 Education and Research, Inc., a LE training and consulting firm. Nick has held multiple positions over a 20-year career and has directed, managed, and presented training programs globally across various topics including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, verbal de-escalation techniques, post-traumatic stress disorder, burnout, and vicarious traumatization. He has authored over 300 book reviews, presented globally on over 200 professional presentations, and has authored or co-authored over 35 articles in psychiatry and psychology. He is Board Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress – Diplomate and Fellow, American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. He is an approved CIT instructor with the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board and a CIT instructor for the Chicago Police Department. He is a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), a board member for Blue H.E.L.P., a member of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, and a member of the International Public Safety Association (IPSA), Committee Chair for the IPSA Mental Health Committee, and a member of CIT International.