Integrating officer suicide prevention into in-service training
If suicide prevention is to be accepted as a part of our culture, it has to start at the beginning of an officer's career
By Tom Famolare
“The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.” - Dr. Rachel Remen
Two years ago, in an effort to provide police officers in Massachusetts a better understanding of the impact traumatic events can have on officer mental health and wellness, the Massachusetts Police Training Committee (MPTC) rolled out an in-service training program titled “Stress, Stigma and Survival in Policing.”
The class was designed to take a grassroots approach that offered a relatively informal environment where peer-to-peer learning could occur around recognizing the signs of critical incident stress and dissecting some of the stigma officers perceive when seeking help. The purpose of the program was to help officers understand there is no shame in reaching out for help, talking things out with a peer, or treating mental wellness the same as physical wellness.
Upon completion of the program, officers had a better understanding of the stigma that can arise when seeking help and how this stigma – whether real or perceived – is counterproductive, and something to be overcome.
Officers were also able to define critical incidents, critical incident stress, post-traumatic stress and PTSD. Finally, the officers were given a list of local resources, including hospitals and outpatient facilities specializing in the care of police officers and first responders. Officers complete the class with the understanding that cops are not immune to the effects of the traumatic events we witness on a daily basis.
At the same time this training was taking place, state representatives were working on a law to make conversations between police officers and trained peers confidential with limited exceptions. That bill was signed into law on January 16, 2019.
Police suicide prevention
Over the next few weeks, the MPTC will begin a train-the-trainer course on police suicide prevention.
As the number of officer suicides continues to rise, the committee took important steps to develop a comprehensive program on prevention and intervention of police suicide. The program will begin with train-the-trainer classes throughout the state and will finish up with a presentation to the MASS Chiefs of Police Association in mid-September. It is no coincidence that the majority of training will be held during National Suicide Prevention Month.
The program, titled "Be on the Look Out, (for each other)," is again designed as a nuts-and-bolts class taught by police officers for police officers. The suicide prevention, intervention and postvention class will include recognition of warning signs, risk factors and intervention techniques, with a review of readily available resources throughout Massachusetts and New England. Attendees will be encouraged to develop a relationship with local hospitals to assist officers who may be suicidal. This helps ensure that the hospital is an appropriate facility with the capabilities to treat a suicidal person and that the officer will be in a secure area out of the public view.
Upon completion of the in-service training, every police officer in the state will be better prepared to take action to help save the life of a brother or sister officer.
I would like to thank the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Blue H.E.L.P. for providing me with facts and statistics. I also want to thank the MPTC for allowing me to develop these curricula and for taking the major steps in suicide prevention for officers. But It can’t end here.
The world officers live in does not allow for any signs of imperfection or weakness. If suicide prevention is to be accepted as a part of our culture, it has to start at the beginning of our police careers. As a bright-eyed recruit in 1989, I had very little training on critical incidents, traumatic events, suicide and the impact these things have on our well-being. Our uniform does not protect us from this impact, we can only protect ourselves and each other. I look forward to a future where more and more police officers are willing to seek help and fewer and fewer take their own lives.
About the author
Tom Famolare is a retired detective from the Boston Police Department; he was a member of the Critical Incident Debriefing Team for over 20 years. One of his last assignments was at the Peer Support Unit where he coordinated the CISM response to the Boston Marathon Bombings in 2013. Tom is currently employed as the outreach coordinator for the LEADER Program at McLean Hospital, a mental health/substance abuse program specifically designed for first responders. He also serves as a curriculum developer for the Massachusetts Police Training Committee.