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4 things police leaders should be doing to stop police suicide

Few agencies are making significant efforts to prevent the loss of lives and productivity resulting from stress injury to the body


We must reject the outdated and inaccurate notion that stress is an emotional problem.


Law enforcement has made significant gains in raising awareness around suicide among first responders. But sometimes the very messages used to promote awareness can cause harm and undermine suicide prevention efforts.

Fortunately, there is a safe way to talk about suicide. Find out actionable steps public safety professionals can take to create honest, empathetic, effective messages that support departmental prevention efforts and focus on solutions in a webinar now available for On Demand viewing.

We often use the “W” word to describe police life – the war on the streets or the war on cops – but the war comparison lacks equivalence to American servicemen and women, as our wars are never over, and our combat tours never end.

While our training and response to major events has improved to more often include crisis services for involved personnel, few agencies are making significant efforts to prevent the loss of lives and productivity resulting from stress injury to the body. Here are some ways police trainers and police leaders can build prevention education and mental wellness awareness into law enforcement organizations.

1. Rebrand mental health as a survival issue

We must reject the outdated and inaccurate notion that stress is an emotional problem. By using terms like stress injury, survival acuity and integrated health, we place stress where it belongs in the realm of brain science and human performance.

Stress injury refers to the physiological changes that can occur when stress response remains after a threat is gone. This can range from sleep deprivation to full-blown PTSD. Survival acuity refers to the degree to which the stress response improves and impedes an officer’s response to a threat on the job. Integrated health is the recognition that peak performance comes from optimal fitness, social engagement and brain health management.

2. Normalize resources by making them known

Sure, you have an employee assistance office. Do officers know where it is and what services are offered? Are those services confidential? Is there an agency psychologist? Are personnel records shared with supervisors or defense attorneys? Policy and actual practice should make it clear that seeking professional services for mental health is encouraged. Officers should never be left to suffer for fear of discrimination after they seek help.

Has every person memorized 1-800-273-TALK? That’s the suicide prevention hotline. (All you really have to remember is 273 – the 800 and the TALK come naturally). Is there any reason why this number isn’t on every bulletin board, every training handout and every email signature?

3. Integrate brain science into training materials

Police skills trainers and field trainers must become literate in the field of the biology of stress and human performance. Stop saving combat support breathing for when you’ve been shot, and integrate it into how an officer should start their day. Recognize that positive self-affirmation is not a pyscho-babble, feel-good strategy but has a proven function as an antidote to the hundreds of negative messages that show up in our thinking. Stop yelling at your firing line for the purpose of getting them used to stress – the stress of being shot at isn’t going to be reduced by their experience of being shamed on the line. It’s just not relevant.

Everyone should be talking about the survival acuity value of an integrated health approach. You can do away with the mandatory 4-hour block of instruction on stress management if it becomes part of the way a department trains and does business.

4. Stop throwing away perfectly good police officers

Stress related injuries can be fixed. Yes, even PTSD. Giving officers the tools to recognize symptoms of stress injury can provide an early warning sign for effective intervention. Everyone should have an awareness of the causes and cures of loss of functionality related to stress chemistry to help their team members showing cues of distress. The life or career you save may be your own.

And remember, 1-800-273-TALK. Memorize it.

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. He retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.

His latest book The Badge and the Brain is available at