The Badge of Life Organization recently released their preliminary 2009 police suicide statistics. There were 143 police suicides in 2009, a slight increase from 2008 police suicides of 141. In 2009 there were 127 in the line of duty deaths. Officer suicide rates are at least double of the general population. Any law enforcement suicide is one too many. World Suicide Prevention Day is observed on September 10 each year to promote worldwide action to prevent suicides. Various events and activities are held during this occasion to raise awareness that suicide is a major preventable cause of premature death.
The 2009 Badge of Life police suicide study provided additional demographic information:
- Ages 40-44 are at highest risk of suicide, representing 27% of all suicides.
- Service time at highest risk was twenty years plus.
- Officers with less than ten years on the job had a suicide rate of 17%.
- 64% of suicides were a surprise.
There is no easy or full proof way to identify which officers are most at risk for taking their own lives. Every officer has his or her breaking point. The stresses of daily life, coupled with stresses from tragic/critical events, can push a police officer to end his/her life. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress and depression before an officer reaches that breaking point is essential.
The top predictors for suicide for anyone are: a diagnostic mental disorder, alcohol or substance use, loss of social or family support, and the availability and access to a firearm. 90% of officers commit suicide using a gun. Additionally, about 90% of the time, an officer is drinking heavily when he/she kills himself/herself. Statistically, most officers that commit suicide are white males, working patrol and are entering middle-age. They have experienced a recent loss, real or perceived. Most have no record of misconduct. Most shoot themselves while off duty.
The foremost researcher in stress in the world, Hans Selye, said that police work is the most stressful occupation. Officers witness life's most horrible scenes. Nothing can possibly prepare a police officer for what he or she might encounter on the job. They are first on scene when a child dies, a woman is raped, a senseless homicide, a teenager's suicide, a car ablaze with victims trapped, drug overdoses, and domestic violence calls. These calls have an effect on even the most seasoned officers. The calls add up. The job lacks balance. Most other professions experience more of a blend of the good with the bad, not so for an officer; it is frequently one heart wrenching call after another. Additionally, an officer's life is in danger every day, they can never let their guard down; never turn off the adrenaline pump. While officers generally operate well under stress, too much stress may have disastrous outcomes.
Officers often work 10-12 hour shifts, at hours most people could not conceive of. There is often disruption in their lives due to rotating shifts. Overtime is often mandatory, and a call to court for testimony can further disrupt an officer's sleep routine and requirements. Meals are often a luxury due to the demands of the beat. Family and other personal relationships are forced to the back seat. They want to protect their families from the horrors they have to deal with routinely, refusing to discuss their work with significant others. Family members may feel left out, confused, neglected. Resentments often build.
Other sources of officer stress are related to the ever present scrutiny by the command cadre as well as criticism from the public and media. There is an overwhelming sense of disappointment when an officer is not chosen for a promotion he/she felt was due. Couple this with frustration from the criminal justice system, despite the officer's best efforts, the bad guys get off. Cliques within a department can make an officer feel ostracized. Officers have an increased risk of contracting serious diseases, also adding to their stress. Emphasis on political correctness and cultural diversity also can create additional stress for any officer.
Most importantly, law enforcement officers are subject to repeated critical incident stress. Any critical incident can trigger a post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD can surface immediately or years after exposure to the traumatic event. PTSD frequently becomes a vicious cycle of despair that leads to the use of maladaptive coping skills including suicide. Depression, the most significant risk factor for suicide, is a hallmark symptom of PTSD. Untreated PTSD can also lead to flashbacks, phobias, anxiety and panic disorders. The effects of PTSD may be evidenced by an officer's decreased job performance, divorce and alcohol/substance abuse, and eventually by suicide. When alcohol or other chemicals are used in an attempt to relieve stress, suicide rates and other problems multiply.
Many obstacles may prevent an officer from seeking professional help for his or her depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts. There are concerns that if they tell their chain of command their careers will be ruined, they will be determined not fit for duty, their gun will be confiscated, they will they be viewed as weak and all hopes of advancement will be destroyed. They may fear being terminated. There is always a fear of confidentiality. The officer worries about the reactions, including further alienation and retribution from peers. The stigma of mental illness remains rampant among many law enforcement officers. The idea of needing help implies cowardice and an inability to fulfill the role of an officer. Officers with a history of depression or anxiety are identified as the weak-link, the guy who folds under pressure. So the officer tries to solve his problems personally and quietly, often with disastrous results.
Law enforcement officers are much more hesitant than average citizens to seek psychiatric treatment. Often they mistrust mental health professionals. Perceptions of clinicians as bleeding hearts who get criminals out of sentences and incarceration can fuel this mistrust. There are also frequent misperceptions of psychiatric evaluations and mental health treatment. An officer may perceive the help as a humiliating and emasculating experience: they have been fine all their lives; thus they can get through this stress without getting shrunk. There may also be an underlying fear that the psychiatrist may find something more or really wrong with him.
Virtually all suicides are preventable with appropriate intervention. Departments must do more to reduce the risk of one of their own taking his or her life. Departments should include suicide awareness training for officers and command focusing on identification of at risk officers, prevention programs and training. Departments also need to implement debriefing strategies after each critical incident. They must also debrief in the event that an officer succeeds in completing suicide. Officers are frequently referred to as brothers and sisters; survivors of the suicide of a family member are up to nine times more likely to commit suicide themselves in comparison with the average person.
The department should assist the officer in finding treatment where his or her needs are best met. A department psychiatrist may have more knowledge of the officer and his or her current pressures. However, the department's clinician may also be involved in evaluating the officer's mental status in regards for fitness for duty. An outside therapist, not involved in the police departmental process, may seem more trustworthy to the officer. Foremost, the officer, psychiatrist, and department need clarification related to the officer's confidentiality and the chain of command prior to initiating psychotherapy or psychopharmacology.
If you are an officer reading this, you may know a peer at risk. As an officer you are frequently called to check the welfare of a possibly suicidal citizen, to prevent a suicide. As a peer you must do the same for another officer. Be aware of signs that someone may be suicidal such as:
- talking about suicide
- making statements related to hopelessness or helplessness
- a preoccupation with death
- a loss of interest in things the officer once cared about
- making detailed arrangements related to insurance and finances
- giving away valued or prized possessions
Notice what is going on in his/her life.
- Is he/she recently separated or divorced, did he/she lose custody of a child?
- Has he/she been involved in a critical incident or under scrutiny by an internal affairs investigation?
- Is the officer pulling away from others, is job performance suffering?
- Is he having increased medical complaints, does he leave work or miss work frequently?
- Do you suspect he/she is abusing alcohol or other substances?
- Do you see a red flag or have a gut level concern?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, do something now. Ask the officer what is going on in his or her life. Ask if they are okay and how they are handling a current stressor. Ask them if they feel depressed, and ask them about suicidal thoughts. Help them get the help they need before they take a life - their own. If they won't seek help on their own go to a trusted supervisor with your concerns. Yes, this is one situation where you may have to break the code of silence. If something is still not being done, go to someone else: the chaplain, your union representative, the department clinician. You are willing to go to any lengths for an officer who needs assistance on a call; you are willing to risk your life for him at every scene. Do something today to prevent the loss of an officer by his or her own hands.
If you are an officer who is hurting and contemplating suicide, reach out now. There are many people who really do care about you, who really do want to help you, who don't want to attend your funeral. Seeking help is a sign of strength not of weakness. It is the first step in reestablishing control in your life. Always remember when there is life there is hope.
In Loving Memory to the fine men and women, who dedicated themselves to helping others and saving lives, yet tragically took their own. It's not how you died, but how you lived.