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Preventing Police Suicides

Making mental health services more acceptable and accessible is key to getting officers the help they need so they won't take their own lives.

June 13, 2017  |  by - Also by this author

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

When one of Sgt. Andy Callaghan's closest friends committed suicide, he said at his friend's eulogy, "I’m sad I couldn't help him." Callaghan heads up the Philadelphia Police Department's Law Enforcement Peer Support Network. He recognized signs that his friend needed help and took him to treatment. "But he walked off the campus where he was being treated and went home and picked up a gun and killed himself," says Callaghan. "It was awful." Yet there are so many more who have been helped. This experience has only further motivated Callaghan to help officers find hope and successfully heal, as he himself did.

Police suicide is a growing concern. It's difficult to pinpoint the particulars because there is no standard or requirement for reporting officers' deaths as suicides. But while the incidence of suicide among crime fighters is lower than that of military vets, it is much higher than for those in the general population. And it's high time that law enforcement do a better job of addressing the issue head on, according to Bob Douglas who founded the National Police Suicide Foundation after a 25-year career in law enforcement.

"The military has put lots of time and energy into suicide prevention training and they are talking about the problem, but law enforcement is not," says Douglas. However, that is slowly changing.

Sgt. Callaghan mourns the loss of his friend, but he knows that the mental health services that helped him can and do help others. "When I saw a therapist and was diagnosed with PTSD, that's when the healing began," he says. He is just one of many dedicated to preventing more police suicides by providing officers the help they need to maintain good mental health so they don't reach their breaking point.

Ushering In Change

"It doesn't mean you're crazy if you ask someone to help you if you're feeling bad," says Dr. John Violanti, a former police officer who now specializes in research on officer suicides. His simple statement addresses the heart of the problem. There is a stigma surrounding anyone seeking help for mental health issues, especially among those in law enforcement. So much so that officers are often unwilling to talk about their feelings and emotions.

They worry that admitting to any emotional or psychological distress could not just label them as weak but also ultimately cause them to lose their jobs. This fear can cause any problems to get worse as officers delay addressing their issues. Then if they reach the point of actually contemplating suicide, they'll likely be even more reluctant to talk about their problems and seek help because they fear that they will be "degunned" for their own protection. Without a duty weapon they can't do their job and they fear never being given their gun back and possibly never returning to full duty again. But it doesn't need to be this way.

After officers have been involved in critical incidents such as shootings they can experience major depression and panic attacks as a result. But long-term counseling can greatly improve these conditions, says psychotherapist Stephanie Samuels. She has worked exclusively with law enforcement officers for more than 30 years and runs a national suicide hotline called Copline (www.copline.org). She says it's important for officers to recognize that these are symptoms common among law enforcement and that they can get better. But they need to have that education and awareness and agency support, and they need to get that help. "We need to make talking to somebody normal," says Samuels. "More agencies need to do that." 

Take away the stigma, and officers are more willing and therefore able to get the help they need. In today's world it's even more imperative that this barrier be removed. Law enforcement is an inherently stressful occupation. And these days the job is getting even tougher.

Thankfully, the newer generation of officers is more open to seeking help for mental health issues, and this change in attitude bodes well for the profession as a whole. "In the '50s and '60s, there was no such thing as mental health, PTSD, and that type of thing," says Violanti. And the remaining officers carrying on the tradition of proudly bottling up their emotions are retiring out of the profession, taking their old-fashioned and harmful views with them. "Today we're more aware, and police culture will evolve so more officers will be coming forth," Violanti says.

Seeing Signs

Everyone should know what to look for to prevent suicide. Specific behaviors that may be signs of someone contemplating suicide include increased use of alcohol or drugs, acting recklessly, withdrawing from activities, isolating themselves from family and friends, sleeping too much or too little, and aggression. These are good guidelines, but they vary based on the person. Experts stress that it's important to note incremental changes in behavior and any other signs that something is "off" before a tragedy occurs. Officers know what's normal for their friends and coworkers and what's not.

Samuels is well-versed in the multiple psycho-social stressors that officers experience both on and off the job, and what they can lead to. "Because of what they're exposed to, they end up seeing the world very differently, and their different way of seeing the world can impede their social functioning through errors of communication, detachment, hyper-vigilance, and sleep problems," she says. But talking to someone, especially a professional counselor or therapist, can help before officers reach a crisis situation.

When you do recognize signs of trouble in an officer, you need to act. And it can't be a passive gesture. "Sliding somebody a phone number and saying, 'You should call this guy,' doesn’t work with our population," warns Callaghan. Instead, you need to show the officer you are there for them. Offer to go with them to seek help or bring someone to them right then if the situation is dire. Make sure it's a vetted person who understands law enforcement to provide the most effective help. And don't beat around the bush when broaching the topic of suicide if you suspect an officer is in danger.

Ask the officer directly, "Are you thinking about killing yourself?"

"A lot of people would think officers won't tell you, but they will," says Douglas. In fact, many of them will be relieved to get the severity of their problem out in the open, says Samuels. "They actually want to live," Douglas explains. The behaviors they are displaying are usually a non-verbal way of telling others there is an issue going on with their life. They just need someone to bring the issue out into the open so it can be addressed before it's too late.

"The most important part is for officers to step in and confront their coworkers and tell them what they see and get help," says Callaghan. "Often when I talk to officers [after a fellow officer has committed suicide], a lot of them report they knew something was wrong, and they wish they had done something."

If you notice that you don't feel quite right and seek help on your own, all the better. "Take a good look at yourself, and if things are getting worse in your life, take some stock of what's going on," says Violanti. "It happens a lot after five to seven years of law enforcement work, feeling the crunch of the stress and trauma they see every day." This can happen even if you're doing your best to take care of yourself by eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep, and maintaining a support network of friends and family.

Many officers experience cumulative career trauma stress (CCTS) in addition to PTSD. In many cases, symptoms manifest over time as a result of multiple traumatic experiences, not one major incident that can be easily pinpointed. This can make self-diagnosis more difficult. But recognizing signs of problems early on and seeking some form of treatment may prevent them from snowballing into something bigger down the line.

What Agencies Can Do

Officers shouldn't feel alone in their struggles, which is why more law enforcement agencies are providing resources focused on officer suicide prevention. Many provide Employee Assistance Programs, but experts say most could use more emphasis on normalizing the discussion of emotions and feelings, and honestly discussing officers' very real risk of suicide.

"We recognize we have stress, but we cut it short," Douglas says. "We don't tell them that by the age of 35 they might 'check out' because of divorce, alcohol-related issues, cumulative career trauma stress, and PTSD, and that if intervention is not placed with them they are more likely to commit suicide than be killed by a felonious act." But more agencies are starting to provide this information, in the academy and beyond, as well as the services to change the statistics for the better. 

Back in July 2011, a number of San Diego Police Department officers had criminal misconduct cases, including DUIs, sexual assault charges, and domestic incidents. "This string of incidents reflected a pattern of ineffective coping, to my mind," says Sarah Creighton, who was then a captain with the department. In response, she created and headed up a wellness unit to help officers effectively handle their stress, which has been extremely successful.

When Creighton retired in February as assistant chief in charge of the Wellness Unit, she had merged all related programs including chaplains under the same umbrella to pool resources and greatly improve communication so they could better meet officers' needs. And she made sure the unit was heavily involved in training and even regularly showed up to roll calls to get the word out.

She had also moved the Wellness Unit to the center of police headquarters, making it a gathering place for anyone who wanted to come in for free coffee and talk with each other as well as with therapists. This made discussion about feelings normal and comfortable, and seeing someone there didn't necessarily mean the officer was seeking therapy for a serious mental health crisis. There is a fine balance between access and anonymity when it comes to providing mental health services, and this set-up struck just the right balance for San Diego PD. 

The Wellness Unit was able to provide officers with information about healthy coping mechanisms as well as access to therapy for themselves and their families, which greatly diminished the incidence of "ineffective coping" at the department. And considering that relationship problems are the highest cause of suicide, treating family members and helping them understand how law enforcement can change people is extremely significant.

"My goal is to be the team involved before there is a suicide," says Sgt. Mike Carleton, who heads up the Tempe (AZ) Police Department's Peer Support Program. "I'd rather spend 100 hours providing help to an officer so he or she doesn't commit suicide, instead of spending 10 hours afterwards to help everybody else recover from the trauma of it happening." This proactive approach is ideal, and exemplified by the fact that Tempe PD actually began its program focused on suicide prevention before the agency experienced any officer suicides, to keep them from happening. And it's been very successful.

When rank-and-file officers feel that they are being supported by their administration in every aspect of the job, it helps alleviate a lot of the stress they can feel.

One key to a program's success is an agency's administrators supporting rank-and-file officers. And ideally the top brass should model the right behavior by not just recognizing that mental health services are genuinely valuable and effective, but also openly sharing their struggles with mental health and their success in finding help. This lets officers know that seeking help and having issues in the first place are OK. It makes them normal.

"If we can be proactive and bring about a better understanding of these stressors, and then give them basic signs and symptoms, and also teach them how to make interventions, we can prevent a lot of suicides," says Douglas.

Callaghan has seen this put into action with the Philadelphia Police Department's Peer Support Program. He says one of the keys has been excellent support, communication, and cooperation among everyone at his agency and surrounding agencies. "We know if they get help, they come back with a better skillset, usually better than before because they have better coping mechanisms," he says. Seeking help doesn't mean the end of a law enforcement career. "I see successes every day when I run into cops that got promoted after I helped them get help."

For agencies that are interested in starting or improving a suicide prevention program, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has put together a program called "Breaking the Silence: A National Symposium on Law Enforcement Officer Suicide and Mental Health" to aid agencies in combating officer suicide. It provides agencies with a template to follow, with readily available downloadable content at http://www.theiacp.org/preventing-law-enforcement-officer-suicide.

Educate Yourself

Even if your agency doesn't provide extensive training in suicide prevention, you can be your own advocate. Learn the signs. Look for the signs—in others and in yourself. Then be brave enough to follow through and talk to your coworker or friend. Or if you're the one who needs help, reach out in the best way you can.

Maybe you just need to talk to a friend. Or maybe speaking with a member of your agency's peer support team would help. They can let you vent your frustrations, gauge the severity of your situation, and refer you to a professional if that is the best course of action. Everything will be confidential. You could reach out to another local agency with better resources than yours, skip directly to speaking with a therapist, or call a suicide hotline geared toward officers. 

The important thing is for law enforcement officers to get help if they need it. To talk to each other. To look out for each other. To get the word out that asking for help is not a display of weakness. Because one police suicide is one too many. 

Resources

If your agency doesn't already have an extensive Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to help officers cope with issues that could lead to suicide, there are many resources for individual officers and entire agencies.

American Association of Suicidology

http://www.suicidology.org/

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

https://afsp.org

Badge of Life

http://www.badgeoflife.com

Brain Line Military

http://www.brainlinemilitary.org

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

https://www.cdc.gov/violencePrevention/suicide

Code 9 Project

http://www.code9project.org

Copline

http://copline.org

National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention

http://actionallianceforsuicideprevention.org

National Institute of Mental Health

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/index.shtml

National Police Suicide Foundation

https://www.psf.org

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org

SAVE: Suicide Awareness Voices of Education

https://www.save.org

Serve & Protect

http://serveprotect.org

Suicide.org: Suicide Prevention, Awareness and Support

http://www.suicide.org/suicide-hotlines.html  

Suicide Prevention

http://www.larasig.com/suicide  

Suicidology Online: Open Access Journal

http://www.suicidology-online.com

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: National Center for PTSD

https://www.ptsd.va.gov


Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

kevcopaz @ 6/23/2017 2:42 PM

Great effort and this situation needs to come out into the light. We in Law Enforcement need to realize that we are all human and some can take more stress then others. I for one having=g done death investigations for over 11 years have seen far too much. Luckily I seem to be function "normal" (whatever that is). Other may not be so lucky or blessed to be able to do so. I have seen far too many fellow brothers and sisters end their life due to the stress we all face. Perhaps if the public really does care then the anti-cop BLM crap and retract should stop. I realize that the vast majority of folks respect us and are glad we are there but if you listen to media, the politicians and the few loud mouths we are all criminals. I'm sure this adds much more stress to an already stressful profession and is completely able to be eliminated.

still alive @ 6/24/2017 5:34 AM

The way the question is asked is important. Here the author said to ask if I was thinking about killing myself. Most people asked me if I was thinking about hurting myself; the typical pansy fraud, I mean Freudian, way of asking. I was able to look them in the eye and truthfully say, No, I don't plan on hurting myself at all. What I didn't say was I plan to stop the pain. After I came up with my plan and decided to do it, I felt much better. I got through another 2 years. 30 days ago, I started with new agency on other side of the US. I still have my plan, but I feel 100%. I know something will trigger my fall, but until then I'll keep fighting through one day at a time.

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