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Police suicide: Myths and realities

Why do some cops lose the will to live and what can we do to help them?

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Because of the understandable unease surrounding this topic, many people are unaware of what evokes thoughts of suicide, how people in general, and law enforcement officers in particular, deal with it, and the personal struggles that may underlie it.

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Editor’s Note: Suicide is always preventable. If you are having thoughts of suicide or feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline immediately at 988. Counselors are also available to chat at Remember: You deserve to be supported, and it is never too late to seek help. Speak with someone today.

What would drive a police officer to take their own life? Are there ways of predicting who is at risk for suicide? What can we do for an officer on the brink?

Because of the understandable unease surrounding this topic, many people are unaware of what evokes thoughts of suicide, how people in general, and law enforcement officers in particular, deal with it, and the personal struggles that may underlie it. This article will attempt to bring some clarity to the subject by discussing several common myths, half-truths and realities surrounding police officer suicide.

Officers die by suicide as a result of the common dangers and stress of their occupation. Mostly untrue. Cops accept that stress and danger are integral components of the job they signed up for. Covering grisly accident scenes or dealing with violent criminals requires effort and dedication, but in most cases, officers deal with these events with tact and professionalism, precisely because it’s a job, not personal. Based on survey research and interviews with officers, the two main sources of stress for officers are: (1) perceived lack of support from their agencies; and (2) family conflicts and disruptions, because in these two circumstances, there has occurred a rupture in the occupational or interpersonal trust that ordinarily provides the mental, moral and spiritual backstopping that allows us to navigate our work and life challenges. When either of these erode or explode, it really can feel like the bottom has fallen out.

Officers typically use their duty weapon to die by suicide. Mostly untrue. There is scant hard data on this subject, but anecdotal evidence suggests that while firearms are the leading cause of death in officer suicides (because most cops have a lot of them), an officer’s duty weapon is not typically the one used. Officers who have survived suicide attempts, or have changed their minds before doing it, have sometimes stated that they didn’t want to end things by further disgracing the symbols of their profession. Yet, interviews with officers who have survived suicide attempts suggest there have been a few cases where an officer has used their duty gun in a suicide, or considered doing so, precisely to “make the point” of how their agency’s maltreatment of them has driven them to the ultimate act.

Depression and suicidality often go undetected in police officers. Very true. Admitting any kind of weakness goes against the grain of the super-strong and super-competent image that many officers project and then try to live up to. This is especially true for officers already shamed and/or angered by an investigatory or disciplinary action, admitting to such an ultimate expression of defeat may represent an intolerable insult-to-injury scenario. Worse, otherwise well-intentioned friends or colleagues may defer asking the officer about their concerns out of unfounded fears of “making things worse,” for example, assuming the following:

Discussing suicide will impel the person to do it. Almost never true. Could I talk you into killing yourself if you really didn’t want to? Yet friends, colleagues, supervisors, family members and even some clinicians may avoid asking a clearly depressed or demoralized person about suicidal thoughts for fear of “putting ideas in their head.” In fact, just the opposite is often true. Most depressed persons have already thought of suicide, indeed, may be currently ruminating about it but reluctant to bring it up for fear of being seen as crazy or of having restrictive action taken. The shame factor is probably even more acute for police, and especially where some self-perceived or other-accused personal failing is involved.

Many individuals are actually relieved to have another person show genuine concern about their safety because it offers an opportunity to discuss their fears and conflicts. Many people who have expressed suicidal intentions or have made suicidal gestures later state they did so because they were hoping to be rescued. And if you’re wrong about the danger, the only consequence of your raising the issue will usually be your fellow officer or family member disavowing it (“I’m fine”); for officers in distress, however, denial is often the default initial reaction even if the crisis is real. Either way, it’s better to try and get as much information as possible, rather than too little, too late.

Those who threaten suicide don’t really do it. Not true. Generally, the number of suicidal threats exceeds the number of suicidal acts, and many such statements are not followed by an actual suicide. But attempted or completed suicides are often preceded by expressed suicidal ideation, so each such statement or gesture has to be taken seriously, much in the same way as physicians consider chest pain: it may be indigestion but seek medical attention immediately because it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Suicide is always an irrational act. Sometimes true, but “irrational” is often subjective. It may be difficult for most people to relate to the excruciating mental pain that would drive a person to consider ending their own life, especially if, to our eyes, the situation “isn’t all that bad.” But a clinically depressed or institutionally humiliated officer who is overwhelmed by despair and hopelessness may not possess the rational perspective or sense of self-efficacy you and I might invoke when confronted with our own unique challenges. In a depressed or demoralized state, negatives are magnified and positives are discounted. And it’s not always just perception. Life sometimes really is unfair, or an officer feels they made an irrevocable mistake, and a crushing accumulation of sucky events and disappointments can squeeze the hope right out of a person.

Suicide is always an impulsive act. Also sometimes true, in which case there is hardly any time to intervene because the person completes the act with little or no warning. In many cases, however, the individual has ruminated back and forth, on and off, for days or weeks about what to do, and at some point, out of sheer exhaustion and desperation, may give up and make what looks like an abrupt suicidal decision. During the preceding ambivalent period, however, if concerned others can pick up on the person’s distress, they may be able to offer help.

Individuals who die by suicide are mentally ill. May be true. In most cases, suicide neither occurs in an emotional vacuum nor represents a major diagnosable psychiatric disorder but represents a perfect-storm endpoint of adverse life events and down spiraling mood. Where a diagnosis is made, it usually falls into the category of some type of mood disorder, such as depression or bipolar disorder, sometimes complicated by substance abuse.

However, diagnoses aside, special challenges face officers undergoing the ordeal of internal and/or state investigation for suspected wrongdoing. Guilty or innocent, officers under scrutiny face shame among their peers and supervisors, disgrace among friends and family, potential loss of their jobs and pensions, and possible criminal prosecution and imprisonment. Worst of all is often the abrupt and wrenching twist of their professional identity as honorable protectors into corrupt betrayers of the public trust. While few officers in these circumstances go so far as to take their own lives, some have stated that such an ordeal can be “worse than cancer — at least when you’re sick, people don’t hate you for it.”

Suicide runs in families. Of course true, because everything runs in families, from height and weight, to personality and motor skills. And this includes genetic and developmental susceptibility to emotional instability and mood disorders, the main risk factors for suicidality. But predisposition is not predestination, and as with innumerable other hereditary medical and psychological risks like diabetes, dyslexia, or dermatitis, proper prevention and treatment of depression can help many individuals beat the odds of their family history. Of course, during an actual suicidal crisis, the primary priority is to keep the individual alive right now so that they can be provided access to appropriate therapeutic services later.

Once suicidal, always suicidal. Partly true, for reasons just discussed above. A person who has attempted suicide in the past is generally at greater risk of attempting it again under circumstances that precipitate and/or worsen a future depressive episode. Therefore, one important goal of any effective treatment plan is to help the person, with the support of family and significant others, to develop a range of coping skills that can reduce the frequency and intensity of these crises, thereby making suicidality less of an automatic, reflexive response to stress.

For officers especially, where the suicidal crisis has been precipitated by a (hopefully) one-time major career event, the matter is resolved successfully, and the officer has had the chance to professionally exonerate or rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of their peers and significant others, the chances of such a major disruption re-occurring are lessened if — and here’s the big if — the officer has cultivated the attitudes and learned the skills necessary to deter another catastrophic response to a subsequent adversity, as well as receiving the necessary support from relevant others.

Help is available. True, with some caveats. One important, if paradoxical, takeaway is this: for most people, clinical depression carries the highest level of lethality of any mental disorder, precisely because of its association with suicide. But depression is also among the most successfully treatable of all mental disorders, utilizing psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two. This means that the disorder with so much potential for tragedy is also the one for which there is so much realistic cause for hope.

In the special case of officers under the cloud of opprobrium, police agencies owe it to their communities to continue to forthrightly investigate and deal with suspected officer misconduct. At the same time, however, they bear a responsibility to ensure that such officers have access to appropriate mental health, peer support and other services during and following the investigatory and/or adjudicative process, so that if and when such officers return to duty, they are able to feel that they, too, have been treated fairly and honorably.

We need more data. As true as true can be. Because of the insularity and reluctance to discuss these painful issues, the field of law enforcement (with some notable exceptions, such as Dr. John Violanti; see references below) has been behind the curve in researching its members’ potentially self-destructive psychological reactions to personal and professional adversity. But knowledge infuses strength, not weakness, so let’s continue the effort to credibly and productively apply behavioral science to all of life’s phenomena that affect the health, safety, well-being and productivity of our officers.


Miller L. (2005.) Police officer suicide: Causes, prevention, and practical intervention strategies. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, 7, 101-114. [Reprint available on request].

Miller L. (2006.) Practical police psychology: Stress management and crisis intervention for law enforcement. Charles C Thomas.

Violanti JM. (1996.) Police suicide: Epidemic in blue. Charles C Thomas.

Violanti JM. (2011.) On the edge: Recent perspectives on police suicide. Charles C Thomas.

Note: Information provided herein is for educational purposes, and is not intended to provide individual clinical or forensic advice or opinions. For such cases, always consult with a qualified legal, medical, or mental health professional.

Laurence Miller, PhD is a clinical and forensic psychologist and law enforcement educator and trainer based in Boca Raton, Florida. Dr. Miller is the police psychologist for the West Palm Beach Police Department, mental health consultant for Troop L of the Florida Highway Patrol, a forensic psychological examiner for the Palm Beach County Court, and a consulting psychologist with several regional and national law enforcement agencies.

Dr. Miller is an instructor at the Criminal Justice Institute of Palm Beach County and at Florida Atlantic University, and conducts continuing education and training seminars around the country. He is the author of numerous professional and popular print and online publications about the brain, behavior, health, law enforcement, criminal justice and organizational psychology. He has published “Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement” and “Mental Toughness Training for Law Enforcement.” Contact Dr. Miller at 561/392-8881 or online at