7 ways to prevent police suicide by focusing on overall officer well-being
Taking note of early signs and providing realistic interventions is critical to preventing future suicides
By John Becker, Special Contributor to Police1
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 42,773 people die by suicide in America every year; it’s the tenth leading cause of death. These are tough statistics to grasp. Many people have experienced the life-altering effects of having a loved one, friend or coworker who died by suicide. Responding to the scenes of these tragic events are law enforcement officers and other first responders.
Suicide knows no socioeconomic, age, race, education or gender boundaries. Suicide among the ranks of law enforcement is real. It isn’t even a rare occurrence. It is becoming more prevalent as time goes on. According to The Badge of Life, a group of professionals and surviving family members of suicide victims, 126 police officers died by suicide in 2012. Another statistic from this study is that these officers had an average of 16 years in law enforcement. They came from different walks of life and areas of the country. Each officer worked at different departments and in different work environments.
Focus on officer well-being
Law enforcement officers are under more stress than ever before. The sheer amount of criminal activity, the revolving door of the justice system, longer shifts and increased threats to safety combined make everyday shifts even more demanding.
These stressors, coupled with the everyday tasks that LEOs face, have increased many adverse behaviors. Alcoholism, substance abuse, divorce, habitual grievances and thoughts of suicide have become an everyday reality for some officers. What are departments doing in response to these struggles? What can they do?
Programs can be put in place to ensure an officer has support and direct access to help. Here are things that work and the benefits to officers.
1. Mental health professionals who know cops
Not unlike access to a gym or nutrition services, a department needs to be proactive and provide access to mental health professionals. Finding professionals who have experience with police officers and an understanding to the particular stressors they face is pivotal. Officers need to be able to discuss their problems with someone who understands.
2. Open communication
Just as procedures are in place to ensure accuracy with evidence, a system needs to exist that encourages open communication among officers. Get the image out of your head of group hugs, safe corners and lots of tears. Let’s be realistic. What we are talking about is a simple, “Hey, how was your shift today?”
3. A holistic approach
This doesn’t have to be an elaborate plan, rather just encourage each officer to be responsible for the other in all areas. Not just having their back approaching a house or other scene, but after tough calls or when an officer is having troubles in their personal life.
Shift commanders, albeit already overwhelmed in most departments, need to check in with their officers on a regular basis. Set up programs for positive stress relief, like softball, basketball or bowling teams. Try to encourage a culture of positive physical behaviors; make a baseball diamond the new shift meeting place instead of the neighborhood bar. Additionally, peer-support teams, critical incident stress management or critical incident teams are already in place in many communities and organizations and they are often underused.
Negative and harmful behaviors, such as alcoholism and substance abuse, can set the stage for an officer to believe that suicide is their last action to take. Alcohol is a depressant. Excessive drinking leads to avoidance and issues at home with the family. It affects an officer’s ability at work. Substance abuse can start out after treatment following an injury.
PTSD exhibits itself in harmful behaviors. Depression and discontent can lead to behaviors at work that result in habitual complaints and grievances as well as fights among partners. All of these issues alone demand resources to help.
4. Eliminate the stigma
If you mention the words “mental health” to officers then eye rolls will probably start. A stigma exists across the police culture that any admittance on the part of an officer of struggling mentally or emotionally is a sign of weakness. Officers are some of the strongest members of our society, so to admit needing help makes many feel they aren’t tough enough for the job.
Many departments have failed miserably at eradicating this mentality. Instead of offering approachable interventions, many departments have made it a very cold, long procedure for an officer to seek help. There is an unspoken understanding that once an officer has admitted a need, they are subsequently placed on leave and possibly in danger of losing their position. This approach has caused an unknown number of officers to make the decision to keep their struggles to themselves.
5. Monitor mental wellness
Taking note of early signs and providing realistic interventions is critical to preventing future suicides. Police departments across the nation have multiple testing and evaluation procedures to determine if a potential candidate will be a viable employee. Once hired, many departments require additional training. But what about the LEO’s continued psychological and emotional well-being? These are both critical components to a healthy LEO, but two areas that rarely addressed. Mental health should be viewed no differently than cardiac health because both are vital to an officer’s well-being.
6. Suicide warning signs
These issues, left untreated, can lead to suicide. Knowing the warning signs and making the decision to step in is sometimes the only thing that can prevent a suicide. Turning a blind eye or seeing how things shake out is only going to make the situation worse.
Some of the warning signs are more obvious than others. Any changes in an officer’s standard behavior should be taken seriously. Discord at home, sudden increase in drinking or obsessive behaviors or sudden change in performance at work can all be indicators of depression.
If an officer begins making statements that equate to what’s the point and they’d be better off without me, you must take notice. One sign that should throw an immediate red flag is if the officer has a sudden change of attitude and behavior from down in the dumps to suddenly more social again.
It is imperative that an officer receives intervention at this point because that sudden improved attitude can mean they feel relief from their plan of suicide. Make it a regular part of shift meetings and training sessions to identify the warning signs and make sure your officers know they have options.
7. We know cops
We each stay to our own, so to speak. Fill a room with lawyers, steel workers, paramedics, school teachers and police officers and fairly soon, the lawyers will be talking to lawyers, the steel workers to other steel workers, and so on. We gravitate to what we know.
A school teacher’s daily work duties differ greatly from that of an LEO. Police officers will open up and be more communicative with other officers. When providing professional help for psychological and emotional problems, it is of upmost importance that the person seeking help identifies enough with the resource to truly open up the lines of communication.
If I have never walked in your shoes and vice versa, we will never really understand what it’s like to clock in to each other’s work. One person’s biggest struggle of the day may be a mix up on paperwork, causing a few late hours to correct the problem, while another may have faced the barrel of a gun. The road to approaching those two individuals is going to take very different routes.
Always be there for your fellow officer. Don’t walk away and assume they can sort through whatever trouble they may be experiencing. Walking away may leave that officer thinking he or she has only one option available.
Benefits of overall mental well-being
Identifying and preventing 120 to 150 police suicides each year, among almost one million police officers, is an extremely daunting task. However, when efforts are focused on officer overall mental and emotional well-being, instead of the narrower suicide prevention, there are incredible benefits that include not only suicide prevention, but fewer:
• Deaths from shootings and accidents
• Lawsuits and complaints against officers
• Officers out sick
• On and off-job injuries
• Alcoholism and substance abuse occurrences
• Criminal/other behaviors
• Grievances and resignations
Agencies that implement comprehensive wellness programs will see improvement in the above areas and in officer productivity. The natural result, and the ultimate goal, is to prevent police suicide.
About the Author
John Becker Jr. has experience as a police officer, clinician, and outreach professional. John also possesses a unique understanding of substance abuse among first responders, having overcome addiction in his own life. He is the Director of First Responder Services, for Sprout Health Group and was instrumental in developing and implementing Frontline Responder Services. John is an active member of the Montgomery County (PA) Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team and is certified by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) for individual and group interventions. John is also a member of the National Police Suicide Foundation and has provided training to agencies and organizations, throughout the country, on topics specific to First Responders. He can be reached at 215-833-1572 or JohnB@SproutHealthGroup.com.