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?