Death by suicide continues to plague the law enforcement profession.
According to data released by First H.E.L.P.—an organization that tracks police suicides while simultaneously seeking to prevent such tragedies from occurring—18 officers killed themselves in January of this year alone.
In recent years, there has been a greater effort on the part of law enforcement agencies to address mental health and emotional wellbeing with the aim of improving officers' lives in general and in many cases saving officers lives from the danger of suicide.
Many departments have robust Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and have put into place safeguards that officers seeking mental health support through EAP won't suffer any backlash or negative consequences for doing so. Some agencies have identified credible professional mental health resources that—while they exist outside the confines of law enforcement—understand police culture.
There are seminars on the subject of suicide at annual conferences held by the likes of IACP, the National Sheriffs Association, and statewide organizations.
Still more can be done. Suicide prevention in policing needs to more pervasive. As Joe Willis, chief learning officer for First H.E.L.P., puts it, "There's no wrong time to talk about it. The problem is a lot of first responders just don't know how to talk about it."
First and foremost, it behooves agencies to seek the types of outside assistance such as that provided by First H.E.L.P., which has a variety of four-hour workshops available for first responders, supervisors, mental health providers, and family members.
Their flagship program—the four-hour #ResponderReadiness Workshop—is where first responders explore what Willis refers to as "the 3Ps of Responder Readiness: Performance, Persistence, and Prevention."
Small group discussions explore the impact that operational stress and trauma has on their careers and families. Later in the workshop, participants take a deep dive using small-group scenario based training to practice having difficult conversations about mental health and suicide prevention with friends, family members, and co-workers. They close out the day by practicing resilience skills using what First HELP refers to as the R.A.N.G.E. of Resilience.
- Recognize the Good
- Active Constructive Responding
- Notice the World Around You
- Get Up and Move
- Energy Management
There are even larger plans to bring this kind of outside training to law enforcement. First H.E.L.P. recently issued an announcement with FirstNet—a nationwide, high-speed broadband communications platform dedicated to and purpose-built for America’s first responders and the extended public safety community—revealing plans to deliver the #ResponderReadiness Workshop Series to dozens of communities and thousands of first responders in places throughout the country.
The two organizations hope to see this training reach as far into these rural communities as possible. While the training is open to federal, state, and large municipal responders, priority will go to smaller communities.
In addition to what First H.E.L.P. is trying to do, there are also myriad ways in which mental and emotional wellness can be integrated into training that exists in every agency today from a recruit's first day at the academy to a senior officers acting in the role of mentor and instructor.
Willis says that during the academy, discussions around all aspects of patrol can include some mention of mental health awareness and suggests having discussions in the context of doing the job on the street.
"Make it part of the curriculum, but not just 'a check the box' thing," Willis says.
"The right time to talk about it is during role plays and during scenarios and that sort of thing. An example would be immediately after covering a critical stress situation. The academy instructor might say, 'This is how that could affect you in the future'."
Trainers who take on the role of FTO are immensely powerful people not just because they're the subject matter experts with years of relevant experience but because they can deeply connect with individual officers at a pivotal point in their careers.
Sometimes the right person to approach this topic is the FTO in the earliest days of a trainee's time on the street. Willis suggests that the topic of mental wellness might even be the first thing to talk about after a trainee's very first call.
"Just because it wasn't stressful for the field training officer doesn't mean that wasn't stressful to the rookie," Willis says.
The vast majority of completed suicides by law enforcement officers are done with the duty weapon—and if not the duty weapon, a firearm. There are, therefore, opportunities for talk about suicide prevention whenever the firearm is the focus of attention.
This begins when the agency issues the sidearm to the officer.
Willis explains, "The chief issuing the weapon can say, 'This is to protect the public and yourself and should never be used to take your own life. Can we agree on that simple affirmation, that simple social agreement as I hand you this weapon?'."
One of the most trusted people in an officer's life is often their patrol partner. Willis says this relationship offers a unique opportunity.
"There's two of you sitting side by side in a vehicle," Willis says. "The only thing between the two of you is an MDT and silence. That's it. Both of you are completely committed to—on the next call—saving each other's life. You have no doubt in your mind about that. In fact, you've probably been there before."
Willis continues, "If one of you were to say, 'I'm in a dark place, I need help,' the other would immediately stop what they're doing and get that person help."
Nobody wants to wake up one day and learn that a friend and fellow officer died by their own hand the day before. Awakening to that news, one might be prone to wonder, 'What could I have done yesterday to stop this from happening?'
Perhaps a more pertinent question—one which we can now still control—might be, "What can I do today about tomorrow?"
Today is tomorrow's yesterday.