Police Suicide—What it Isn’t

We’ve all heard the comments. “Suicide is a selfish act.” “Suicide is an angry act.” “Suicide is a cowardly act.” “Suicide is just a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

Suicide is none of these things, particularly when it comes to first responders. Suicide is a complicated problem that permeates law enforcement, in particular, leading to an average of 125 deaths each year. That’s better than ten per month.

So what, exactly, can we learn from suicide among police officers? What, precisely, is it—and what isn’t it?

For one thing, suicide is not selfish. It’s the result of severe depression, often of a long-lasting nature that drains the individual of all hope for survival. “Selfish” is defined as “concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.” To say that taking one’s own life is selfish is to suggest that the individual gets some personal satisfaction out of the act. This is absurd. There is, indeed, a focus on the inner self and the desperation that lies within. Where does that desperation come from? It arises from a deep emotional pain that cannot be escaped. Getting “help” seems useless. There is, it seems, nowhere to turn. All options are off the table. Far from being selfish, the person who is suicidal often sees themselves as a burden on others that can only be relieved by exiting their lives.

Is it angry? Again, let’s look at a definition. Simply put, anger is described as “a strong feeling of displeasure and usually of antagonism toward others.” This is to suggest that the self destructive behavior of suicide is somehow based on a perceived wrong committed by others. The fallacy of this is borne out by suicide notes that desperately express not anger, but remorse at the very act of being alive. “I can’t take this pain any longer.” “Life is no longer worth living.” “I’m so sorry to do this.”

Next is the description of suicide as a “cowardly” act. A coward is “a person who lacks the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things.” In the case of first responders, particularly police officers, the act is the result of having undergone far too many dangerous and unpleasant things. Posttraumatic stress and depression go hand in hand and are the precipitating factors in too many police suicides. It’s not a lack of courage at all—it’s having had too much.

Finally, there’s the simplistic description of suicide as “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” This is, perhaps, the worst of all, attributed to Phil Donahue on a television talk show years ago. The saying set suicide prevention back a generation. It suggests that the decision was somehow a logical one, a choice of “solutions” made on a weighing of the evidence and conceived of after logical—albeit erroneous—thought. Quite the contrary, suicide is a purely emotional decision based on the overwhelming pain being experienced by the victim. It knows no “solution”—it knows only escape.

“Pain” has already been mentioned a couple of times. What kind of pain is it? How deep does it go? How desperate is it, really? One can easily compare it to standing in a window high on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. The alternatives facing the individual are simple—burning a terrible death in the rapidly approaching flames and smoke or, to avoid that kind of pain, closing one’s eyes and taking a leap out into the air and seeking a sudden but less painful death. Either way, there seems no alternative—the desperation is overwhelming and the need to avoid pain is incontrovertible.

To the suicidal individual, there is simply no alternative to death. Rationale has nothing to do with it. This is why, when confronted with a suicidal individual, it’s vital to avoid simplistic labels. The one thing that is hard for the suicidal person to understand is that there really is refuge from the pain. To communicate this, however, calls for compassion, empathy, and an effort to assure the person that they are not alone. This is best accomplished by showing the person you understand the dynamics of depression and suicide and that you do realize suicide seems, for the moment, to be the “only way” to escape the pain of what is troubling them. Above all, let the person talk. Do not label or judge the person.

Don’t be afraid to use words like, “caring,” “loving” and “accepting.” The right words are important, and allow them to show in your voice. It is imperative that the person understand that, regardless of what has brought them to this stage, they can survive it and be cared for in a compassionate way by others who have “been there” and/or who dedicate their lives to helping others. As one psychologist put it, “There is no such thing as no hope.” Let the suicidal person know that there is not only hope, but that their life is important to you. Avoid saying things like, “You have so much to live for,” “Your suicide will hurt your family” or, worse, “Look on the bright side.”

These steps are important. It is entirely possible—perhaps inevitable in police work—that you will encounter an individual on the brink of suicide. It may well be a fellow police officer, gun in hand. You can be instrumental in their survival by laying the path to proper care, attention and healing. The place to begin is by avoiding useless labels like the above and working toward a positive solution. You may well be the difference between life and death.

And if you’re one of those in danger of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Do it now.

– 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.

(Photo courtesy LET reader Wayne)