Police Suicide – Making a Difference
While many police departments still remain in denial, we know that police work can lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can lead to severe depression and suicide. That’s a fact. Many departments that have experienced such a death, however, don’t know what to say about it. They keep the police suicide a secret (“the officer died unexpectedly,” the death is “under investigation,” or they simply remain silent), depriving the deceased an honorable funeral and often ignoring the family after a few phone calls). Why?
One hundred to 150 police suicides occur each year—more than from gunfire and traffic accidents combined. In the first quarter of this year alone, 30 law enforcement officers have died by taking their own lives, an increase from the same period last year. How many others remain “hidden” has yet to be seen.
Oh, there’s a lot of talk on the subject, to be sure. There are lectures and interviews and television broadcasts discussing the problem. Articles are written. There are meetings, seminars and conferences in which stories are shared, statistics are reviewed, videos are played and power points are presented. “Suicide prevention” training is conducted for squads. Terms and definitions are debated and books are sold.
Still, police suicide continues. In some departments, good programs are in place. There are peer support groups, chaplaincies, departmental psychologists, employee assistance programs (EAP’s) and even annual mental health checks across the country. Some departments employ one or more of these, but too many do not. Recently, a police chief was heard to say, in discussing a suicide, “We had a program and we don’t know why he didn’t use it.”
End the Stigma
In response, the first answer that comes to everyone’s mind is stigma—the stigma of “having a problem” and it being so serious that one has to seek assistance for it. And this is true. Reaching out is a challenge for police officers. Cops are trained to solve problems, not have them. It’s widely known and accepted that officers wear a mask over their true feelings—not only in front of the public, but with one another and with their families. Slogans like, “End the stigma” and “Get help when you need it” are rampant in training sessions and on bulletin boards, yet too many officers don’t do either. And police suicide continues, year after year.
Sharpen Our Focus
Beyond wringing our hands, however, we need to sharpen our focus. It’s not that the programs in place are bad or even inadequate—in fact, they’re excellent. It is, instead, a matter of who takes responsibility for making them happen. It’s called, “leadership.” In the case of mental health and suicide prevention, however, that leadership doesn’t just begin at the top—it belongs with the “bottom” as well. It’s a shared obligation. What does this mean? It means that the responsibility for good mental health belongs to every person in law enforcement, regardless of their rank or position. Among the 30 law enforcement personnel committing suicide this year, three have been chiefs—driving home the point that suicide does not discriminate by rank.
As noted, chiefs have a wide selection of programs to employ. Let’s take the “annual mental health checks” as an example. In it, personnel meet with an EAP therapist, a departmental psychologist or outside counselor once a year in the same way they visit the dentist each year for a cleaning or their doctor for a physical examination. The purpose is simple—to look at the previous year and see what has been working well and what has not. It’s an opportunity to make changes, learn from the past and expand on resiliencies. Additionally, an officer knows someone if the time comes that they need them, such as a critical incident. The visit must be purely voluntary—mandating them is too akin to a “fitness for duty” exam and generates immediate distrust. For those who are suspicious of the program anyway (seeing it as a pipeline to the administration) there must be encouragement to go on the “outside” and visit a therapist there, privately—where confidentiality is more assured.
The chief must lead the way from the top—uncomfortable though it may be. Before officers will accept the program, he must go for a visit himself and be willing to come back and actually talk about its benefits to middle management and the squad. What kinds of things did he discuss? What was it like? How was it beneficial? Does he recommend it? Such a presentation need not be overly personal, but must demonstrate a belief and commitment to the program. This being a voluntary program, it’s the responsibility of the officer to then initiate it and follow through.
Meeting in the Middle
This is an example of both “top-down” and “bottom up.” It’s called, “meeting in the middle.” The key point, however, is that whether it’s pursued with a peer support officer, a chaplain, the EAP or an outside therapist, good mental health is the responsibility of every individual in law enforcement. An officer who is preoccupied by stress, anxiety or depression is a danger to himself, the public and the officers around him who are depending on him to be at his prime.
The days of getting help “when you need it” are past. We are now in the era of getting help “before” you need it. Take responsibility for your own mental health. In this toxic, caustic work environment, you deserve no less.
– Andy O’Hara is the founder and a board member of the Badge of Life organization. Andy has co-authored one book and has written numerous articles for publication. He is an advanced peer support officer, working with individuals to find appropriate help and ways to deal with law enforcement issues. Andy is a 24-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol, was suicidal and retired with PTSD.