How to prevent PTSD from leading to police suicide

It is incumbent on police leaders today to work hard to put suicide prevention capabilities in place so that officers can get the support they need in difficult times

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Starting in 2010, Congress named June 27th PTSD Awareness Day and in 2014, the Senate designated the full month of June for National PTSD Awareness Month. Sadly, PTSD has all too often led officers to commit suicide. According to a study done by Badge of Life, 141 cops took their own lives in 2008, and in 2009 there were 143 police suicides. There is no way of telling how many of those tragedies were caused by PTSD, but one can confidently say that at least some of them were the result of PTSD. Regardless of the cause, it is incumbent on police leaders today to work hard to put suicide prevention capabilities in place so that officers can get the support they need in difficult times. 

PTSD can result from a single horrific event, or it can be cumulative — repeated exposure to a variety of horrible scenes and circumstances over the course of a long career. Badge of Life — a website set up to help police officers deal with mental health issues and prevent suicide — describes Cumulative PTSD as being like taking a single swing of an axe at the same tree every day until one day that axe finally fells the tree. 

Dr. John Violanti — a noted expert on PTSD and suicide in law enforcement – famously said, “Officers have an ethical obligation to care for our people. We have a moral imperative to care.” What follows are some thoughts on putting a suicide prevention program in place. 

Getting Beyond the Hurdles
A suicide prevention campaign may be a difficult “sell” in a police agency — especially one where a suicide has not yet occurred, or where there is an existing stigma about officers seeking the assistance of mental health professionals. 

A particular department may not have experienced officer deaths by suicide. While this may be harder to grasp without personal experience, it is important to note that twice as many law enforcement officers every year die from suicide than are killed in either traffic accidents or assaults. If an agency has not suffered a suicide tragedy, they should not wait for one to occur. 

Do not allow mental illness or other significant risk factors such as PTSD to remain unidentified and go untreated. Be proactive. Officers should be given the mental health support and resources they deserve.

Creating Access to Services
If officers are not self-reporting, commanders may be unaware of mental illness or suicide risks, and an awareness campaign may be perceived as unnecessary. The stigmas associated with self-reporting mental health issues, and perceived and possibly real fear of consequent job loss, prevent agencies from being aware of problems and from providing the necessary resources. 

Ineffective or nonexistent mental health professionals to identify and treat at-risk officers, as well as stringent confidentiality rules, also may prevent executives from being aware of officers with mental health issues, mental illness, or suicidal behavior or ideation. As such, executives may not fully grasp the need to prioritize mental wellness or suicide prevention campaigns in their agency. 

Nonetheless, other indicators may be present in a department. Have any officers ever abused alcohol or prescription drugs? Been involved in domestic violence incidents? Used excessive force? These officers, and officers subject to internal affairs investigations, serious disciplinary actions, unwanted job changes, or relationship trauma, may need mental health counseling or other types of treatment. 

These events, of course, do not forecast mental illness or suicide risks, but they can be risk factors for or warning signs of underlying mental health issues. Resolve to address these potential mental health issues now, and to target serious mental illness such as depression or suicidal behavior. Begin by instituting an agency-wide campaign on mental wellness.

Identifying the Best Supporters
Hire the right people to implement and follow through on effective mental wellness and suicide prevention policies, practices, and programs. Chiefs who make these issues a priority will hire resilient police officers, and will adequately screen new recruits. Some of the key personality traits of officers who demonstrate long-term emotional wellness and resiliency were identified as:

•    Service orientated and committed to social service
•    Empathic balanced with a “cool head”
•    Socially competent
•    Team player
•    Demonstrates integrity
•    Good impulse and stress control
•    Minimal risk behavior

Addressing Cost Concerns
Any new program costs money and agencies may lack sufficient resources. While new programs undeniably cost time and money, it may be more cost effective to treat a veteran cop with mental health issues than to hire a brand new officer. If an agency institutionalizes effective detection, prevention, and intervention strategies, the cost of sick time, lost productivity, legal fees, and other expenses may be diminished. 

Police leaders may want to reach out to risk management professionals to calculate these real costs and to better understand the payoffs involved.

There are numerous resources for officers in crisis or at risk of suicide. If you or a colleague begins to manifest symptoms of PTSD, consider making contact with someone from Safe Call Now, Serve and Protect, and/or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Or you can go to 1st Help, a searchable database dedicated to finding emotional, financial, and religious assistance for first responders offered by 1st Alliance.

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