We accept that stress is an integral part of the J.O.B. “Stresses in police work occur because of the nature of the work experience itself. Further, stress is a function of police organizations, and the traditional subculture and “politics” of every police department, everywhere,” says Dr. James T. Reese, CEO of the National Center of Crisis Management.
Likewise, my friend and police chaplain Bob Denton believes that, “Stresses within the department account for about 93 percent" of police suicides, versus stress from the street which accounts for about 7 percent of deaths.
Stress is different than trauma. Trauma and developed PTSD can happen after just one call. Maybe it's an officer involved shooting, murder scene, traffic fatality, death of an infant or toddler. The officer may also accumulate trauma/PTSD over a number of years (called “residual trauma”) which may be a continued experienced, even after retiring, according to Dr. Violanti.
“Pain shared is pain divided. Joy shared is joy multiplied.” —Author unknown
Police officers like to think they are big tough guys and gals who “can take it,” whatever “it” is in that equation. However beneath all that blue polyester is just a man or woman subject to the same frailties as any other. Consider for a moment that a common statement after an officer’s suicide is “We didn’t know he was having problems,” or reference to the fact the officer, “slipped under the radar.” Flying under the radar, hiding your problems, trying to dull feelings of loneliness, anger, sadness, depression—particularly with alcohol—just makes things worse.
The toughest part of reducing these deaths is getting officers the help they desperately need. One interesting strategy recommended by the folks at Badge of Life is a yearly mental wellness check with a qualified therapist. This is kind of a unique recommendation as traditionally law enforcement officers are skeptical of “shrinks.” But the site equates the mental health checkup with physical health checkups, which have been recommended for decades.
Certainly law enforcement needs to include more education about the topic in basic academies. Over the last few years training has focused on the “special needs” of certain segments of society, and time in basic programs has been dedicated to the health and welfare of others. Yet my state’s basic academy curriculum includes nothing about police suicide and coping strategies.
If agencies focused more on mental health and wellness programs, including stress and trauma, they could significantly reduce officer suicides.
A suicidal officer should be referred to a professional immediately. But having plans and systems in place prior to an emergency is one heck of a lot better than reacting in an emergency. These plans and systems include what to do after a suicide so that morale is not adversely affected by stupid comments by a boss such as “He took the coward’s way out.”
Over the course of my career, which has had its share of twists, turns, stress, trauma and attempts by some alleged brothers in blue to insert sharp pointy blades in my back, I have sought the counsel and advice of my police chaplain. A reserve officer himself, we have “talked of many things,” and most of those conversations have little to do with religion, per se. I have come to value his wise counsel and support, as well as his occasional “kick in the ass.”
Having someone to talk to about this job and life in general, especially a professional in these areas who doesn’t judge, can keep you sane in an oftentimes insane world.
There are people who care about and depend on you. Never forget that!
This column is dedicated to James, Howard, Kenny and Dave.
Kevin Davis is a full-time officer assigned to the training bureau where he specializes in use of force, firearms and tactical training. Davis is a former team leader and lead instructor for his agency’s SWAT team with over 500 call-outs in tactical operations.