Suffering in silence: Mental health and stigma in policing

Cops are dying by their own hand and many suffer in silence for fear of the stigma they may face from their department

Within a period of two months we were approached by two police chiefs, from two different regions of the country, after a brother in blue had died from suicide. One had used his duty weapon and the other hanged himself. Both of them went to a remote location to end their lives, an indication their acts were planned in advance.

Both chiefs lost a friend and a colleague they considered not just close, but confidantes with whom they had climbed the ranks. Their paths may have taken them to different agencies and parts of the country from where they started, but the bonds were still tight. Both chiefs asked the questions that tumble through the mind after such devastating, disorienting news:

Why did they do it? Why didn’t they come to me? How could I not know they were in that place? How do we prevent it?

Stigma free culture
How many friends and colleagues, whether in your agency or not, have you lost to suicide? For whom do you fear suicide is a real possibility?

It is reported that more officers die each year by suicide than in the line of duty. Identifying the exact number of police officer suicides is difficult and the number of suicides fluctuates each year, but you would be hard-pressed to find any cop with more than a few years on the job who hasn’t been touched by a police suicide.

While the numbers fluctuate by department, type of agency and regionally, the suicide rate among law enforcement officers has outpaced the general public. So why does this keep happening? What steps can we take to save those who feel helpless to save themselves? Is it something about cops? The job? Police culture?

What are the answers?
The first step is to look toward implementing a stigma free culture throughout law enforcement. Too often, perhaps because of the nature of cops, the job, and even police culture, officers going through personal crisis or even debilitating emotional upsets feel they have nowhere to turn or the stigma attached to admitting the need for help would be taken as a sign of weakness or indication they are no longer fit or trustworthy to do the job.

Sometimes the justification for this fear is entrenched in official policy. Some agencies require officers seeking or receiving mental health treatment, or who take psychotropic drugs, to inform the department and even face duty restrictions while under such care. It is this type of stigma or misunderstanding that perpetuates false information and traps cops in a prison of depression or anxiety.

Part of this stigma often lies within officers themselves. Law enforcement is a profession that values and requires emotional and physical toughness. Strength of body and mind is an institutional value and a legitimate source of pride for most cops. But the job that requires such strength is also capable of chipping away at it.

“Police officers are able to show greater strength than most others in dangerous situations. They are an elite group who are courageous enough to run towards danger to protect others. Yet despite their bravery, their mind and body absorb the hits from encountering a steady diet of critical incidents and other insidious stress events. Many officers will be heavily affected by the years of law enforcement stressors. Eventually, these officers will contend with personal emotional or physical fires. Although police officers will always remain an elite group, they are not invincible. Even model cops need career-long, proactive maintenance work to maintain psychological health.”

Keeping Our Heroes Safe: A Comprehensive Approach to Destigmatizing Mental Health Issues in Law Enforcement” The Police Chief: the Professional Voice of Law Enforcement, May 2014:

Even without duty related stressors, such as critical incidents or other in-house stress, life and biology combine to throw curveballs regardless of what we do for a living – sometimes unexpectedly.

To believe we will not fall prey to the same stressors as anyone else  is deluded. Yet the stigma tied to mental health remains in law enforcement, individually and institutionally, and perpetuates the risks attached to not getting help.

In police culture, a major obstacle that impedes the maintenance of psychological health is the stigma attached to asking for help. Law enforcement culture values strength, self-reliance, controlled emotions, and competency in handling personal problems. These values discourage help-seeking behavior, and there is a sense of having lost control by asking someone else to help fix the problem. If these values are held too rigidly, an officer can feel weak, embarrassed, and like a failure for seeking help from others. One study found that stigma and help-seeking attitudes were inversely related. In other words, a person facing a higher level of stigma for seeking help was less likely to have a help-seeking attitude. This generates concern for officers who unconditionally conform to the traditional values of law enforcement culture—they will be more likely to avoid seeking help, even when distressed, and potentially pay the price of detrimental health effects.                         

“Keeping Our Heroes Safe: A Comprehensive Approach to Destigmatizing Mental Health Issues in Law Enforcement” The Police Chief: the Professional Voice of Law Enforcement, May 2014:

Despite making significant strides in its response to the mentally ill, law enforcement lags behind when those in pain are their own. Fearful of being considered weak or untrustworthy, concerned that seeking help will lead to sanctions or loss of professional opportunities, and wary of how they will be perceived by a public and media with whom many officers and departments already experience strained relations, officers are often unlikely to seek help even privately - doubting their treatment will remain confidential or be understood.

Their fears may not be without merit; some departments have policies requiring mental health treatment, especially if it involves medication, be reported to administrators who may only see liability issues. Even when that is not the case, the notoriously gossipy nature of a lot of agencies, along with regressive attitudes in existence, means stigmatization is a real threat.

Law enforcement suicide is a global issue
This stigmatization is a problem that extends beyond the U.S. and Canada. A recent review of practices and attitudes related to mental health concerns among officers in the state of Victoria, Australia led to the discovery of what was coined a “suck it up” culture within the Victoria Police Department.

The PD is a state agency with wide-ranging police powers and jurisdiction over most of Victoria. Described as a “constant theme from some of the 450 officers who participated in the review,” the “suck it up” culture is wide ranging and critical. One officer spoke of hearing two colleagues talking about, and expressing support to each other following, the suicide of an officer just two days prior. When a sergeant passed by and overheard them he stopped and asked, “Do you want to be f---ing social workers or police officers?”

The department has lost three officers to suicide since October 2015 and 23 since 2000. There are more than 200 officers currently off work because of mental health issues. Stigma and inattention to the emotional impact of the job on officers’ psyches was widely cited, and efforts are underway to make improvements and change. The implementation of education and resilience programs to assist officers with what they see and experience, and how they understand it, includes an expanded psychology unit and dedicated psychological support for officers who investigate sexual crimes against children.

The psychological dangers of policing exist in this hemisphere, as well. During a ten week stretch in the summer of 2015, thirteen Canadian police officers took their own lives and, in the first two months of 2016, two Toronto officers killed themselves.

In the U.S., estimates of how many officers will die by suicide each year range from 150 to nearly 500.  Suicide and nonlethal effects of unacknowledged and untreated mental illness among first responders is a significant problem.

Stigma defined
According to the Mayo Clinic, stigma stems from a lack of understanding rather than information based on facts. To overcome stigma it is important that those suffering from mental illness learn to understand, accept, and determine what is needed to treat it. They need to seek and access support and educate others about the realities and myths surrounding their condition. Likewise, officers who may not have experienced mental health concerns are needed to make mental health issues among law enforcement officers stigma free. It is time to become part of the solution.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness sought feedback from their Facebook community to elicit suggestions for fighting mental health stigma. From the responses, NAMI created a list of nine suggestions that we’ve taken the liberty of adapting for the law enforcement community

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