Socialization and access to firearms
"Ninety-seven percent (of officers' suicides) use their own service weapon," Douglas says. Officers have a special relationship with their gun. It is a source of control, of confidence and of comfort. In the academy, officers are taught to shoot with accuracy, how to clean their firearm, and tactics for maintaining control of it in a fight.
Although some critics argue the high rate of using a gun in a police-involved suicide is due to accessibility, others disagree. "I don't know if it's as much accessibility, as it is familiarity," Meador says. "It's an old friend." Douglas agrees, "The weapon has a significance. It has an identity. It picks up the personality of a best friend. It becomes 'someone' who is trustworthy, reliable and 'someone' with a solution."
Intervention and prevention
Most officers who commit suicide are not mentally ill or weak. Many have failed to cope effectively with their stress. Often afflicted with professional and personal troubles, an officer often feels trapped and out of control. When they see no way out, suicide is often the result. "Officers are trained to deal with people who are suicidal and to talk them down from shooting themselves or taking pills," Kates says of the irony, "They don't apply it to themselves. When they are in tremendous pain at the time of suicide, they don't use the skills." It is up to those around them to notice if an officer appears to be struggling and take action.
Departments around the country have taken action by implementing peer support units (PSUs). When the Metropolitan Nashville PD began its PSU in the late 1990's, officials didn't pick just anyone to be part of the unit. Instead they asked department personnel to submit the names of individuals they thought would be good support people. "They nominated people they felt confident and comfortable with," Greene says. After interviews assessing levels of commitment, each had to commit to initial and follow-up training. Eventually, Nashville's PSU expanded to support smaller departments.
Meador states PSU's offer things traditional departmental mental health programs cannot. "There is a confidentiality that is born from within that peer group," she states, "It is a peer who has been through the same experiences you have. When they say they know how you feel. They do know how you feel."
Acknowledging the problem
Along with implementing PSU's, agency management must be willing to acknowledge the problem of police suicide and support changes. "We need leadership willing to take responsibility for the rank and file not transfer the responsibility nor deny the responsibility," Douglas says, "We need leadership who are not just willing to steer the ship, but to chart the course."
Gillan agrees support must come from the top. "The chief or sheriff has to say it's alright to talk about it and ask for help," he says. "He has to be the one to be at the academy talking to recruits and saying we feel good about this. We have people you can talk to and feel comfortable with. Then the officer will remember the chief, and say, 'Yep, I can talk to someone about it.'"
Another important aspect in the fight against police suicide is training. Officers require all the information they need to fight stress. "When we train at the trainer academy, I try to stress that they might have trauma symptoms," Greene states. "Whatever mechanism they have used to try and overcome is overwhelmed."
Greene notes the major educational piece is spending time teaching police about mental health in general. "We need to get the word out about how to respond and support each other," she says.
Honig suggests supervisors be trained to identify and respond to officers in need. Families also need to be included in department suicide prevention, adds Gillan. "Family is the No. 1 support," he stresses. Meador agrees that anyone of importance in an officer's life must have an understanding of what an officer deals with on a daily basis and know how to get them to open up.
However the training is constructed, the main thing is that officers need to feel comfortable talking to someone, somewhere, if they need to. Also, officers must be trained to recognize symptoms of stress and indicators of suicide. "If you see someone struggling," Gillan says, "reach out to that person. And if you don't have the skills or tools, find people to help that person."