Police suicide

Steps that can save an officer's life


     "There is a lot of peer pressure to keep your mouth shut, in departments, amongst officers, even with partners," adds Kates. "If a police officer is out with his partner and he is revealing all his feelings about his stress, his partner is going to wonder what will happen if they get into a really bad situation. He might ask himself, 'Will he save my life?'"

The psychologist is paid by the department
     Even if an officer acknowledges he or she needs to seek professional help, the choices might prevent him from actually making that appointment.

     Numerous departments offer an Employment Assistance Program (EAP), which allows officers to see a mental health practitioner for any personal problem. Although these can be good services, most officers are wary of sharing emotional information with anyone affiliated with the department. "They have a lack of trust," states Robert Douglas Jr., executive director of the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation and a retired Baltimore, Maryland, police officer. "If they thought they could talk to someone who wouldn't go to the agency and risk being placed on admin duty, they would talk to you. They are scared what they say will leak out because management owns EAP."

     Marshall Frank retired as a captain after 30 years of service with the Miami-Dade (Florida) Police Department. He recalls that he sought professional help privately and paid for it privately when he needed some additional help. "I couldn't afford for my department hierarchy to think they had a nut job," he explains. "My bosses would have thought, 'we can't have Marshall in this job if he's seeing a shrink.' I couldn't let my employees think they were working for a crazy. When you are seeking help, people think you're crazy. This is still prevalent today."

Police work creates stress-related problems
     Several factors in police work create stress and many of the common coping mechanisms officers use intensify the problem. "Officers have been trained to make order out of disorder. They have been trained to take control of situations," says Dr. Lorraine Greene, manager of the behavioral health service division of Tennessee's Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, "If they hesitate, they put themselves or others in danger. They feel whatever their emotion is they have to put them on the back burner. The public expects that."

     Many elements of law enforcement contribute to stress reactions, including shift work, pending retirement, negative public perceptions, unsupportive management and physical ailments. When these are compounded or aggravated by personal problems, such as relationship, financial and substance abuse, police officers find themselves under immense amounts of stress.

     "Sixteen years ago, we started to train robo-cop. We messed up by telling them you can't be human," states Meador. "Officers began to deal with emotion like a junk drawer. You put things in that junk drawer as it happens. In a perfect world, you should be going through the junk drawer and tossing things but we keep stuffing that drawer until it busts the hinges." If an officer does not deal with stress in a healthy manner, depression, burn-out and suicide could be the result.

Critical incidents
     Any look at police work-related stress would be incomplete without addressing critical incidents. "Police departments need to become more aware and learn about certain mental disorders like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)," Tate explains, "When there is a critical incident; they need to have peer support and psychological counseling. You have to have the appropriate professionals helping the officers cope with what they witnessed and what they had to do in the performance of their jobs."

     Don Vine, a 24-year police veteran, was involved in two officer-involved shootings within one month. In the aftermath, he found himself fighting with himself internally and externally with his police agency. "PTSD affects your family and your friends. It can be devastating especially if you don't know what it is. You're frustrated with your family, friends and doctor. No one wants to help you," Vine explains, "Why do police officers commit suicide? Because their department didn't recognize it. The officer is left alone with no way out." It was only through seeking help privately and making several lifestyle changes that Vine began to heal.

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