POLICE SUICIDE MYTHS
How do they start?
Over the years, law enforcement has accumulated some of the worst misinformation imaginable. It spreads from one website into another and even into some books. Some of it starts innocently, by those who have misread literature or repeat bogus information thrown out by some snake oil salesman collecting a fat fee for a lecture. One of the missions of Badge of Life is to weed out the bogus information and point people to what is reliable.
HOW DO WE SPOT BOGUS INFORMATION?
First, ask, "Where did it come from?"
Don't accept statements like, "Studies say," "researchers have found," "It is accepted that," and similar vague generalities. Ask the author or lecturer where these "facts" came from. If what you're reading or hearing doesn't include references to the actual studies, ask for them--specifically. If they hem and haw, you're being taken for a ride.
When someone says, for example, "Studies have shown that police officers have the highest rate of divorces (or alcoholism)," ask them for the study that told them that. You may find that they either don't have the reference or they are quoting someone else who didn't have one either!
Second, if they throw a bunch of "scientific" gibberish at you that you can't understand, don't be afraid to ask for a simpler breakdown. They should be able to provide it--and if they can't, it's because they don't have the answer. Walk away.
We give you the facts, not all of which are popular to all cops. But they're as factual as we can get. No fluff, no drama, no fantasy. "Just the facts."
DEBUNKING THE MYTHS
Are there 300, 400 or more police suicides per year? Answer: No
Actual studies show there are 125 to 150 police suicides per year, at a rate of 14 - 17/100,000 (the public is 11/100,000 and the Army in 2010 was 20/100,000).
Some groups have been drawing attention to themselves by circulating "big numbers," like 400-plus suicides per year, or 60/100,000. There are no studies, anywhere, to substantiate these figures but, because they are so huge and exciting, they get press attention.
Our 2008/2009 national study showed 141 suicides in 2008 and 143 in 2009. This yields a suicide rate of 17/100,000, a figure that holds up under scrutiny and is consistent with CDC/NOMS data. 143 is bad enough--this number is 3 times the number of officers killed by felons.
More cops commit suicide than are killed in the line of duty. Wrong. Correct is: More cops commit suicide than are killed by felons. In 2011, there were 147 police suicides and 164 line of duty deaths, of which 65 were by gunfire.
Cops have the highest rates of alcoholism and divorce.
Unknown--there are no studies to back this up and the claim is purely anecdotal. These numbers have been accepted as "fact" in law enforcement for a long time (again, the old "studies show..."), but the problem is there are no solid studies to back them up.
6.6% of employees in full time jobs in America do report heavy drinking, defined as drinking five or more drinks per occasion on five or more days in the past 30 days (www.usnodrugs.com). Among spouse violence victims, three out of four incidents were reported to have involved alcohol use by the offender. So--
Is the toxic environment of police work fertile turf for substance abuse, marital problems and divorce? Yes it is.
Do cops actually have the highest rates for alcoholism and divorce? We don't know.
The "biggest stressors" in police work are the administration and the bureaucracy.
This may be true IF you mean only "stress" and not "trauma." Stress and trauma are two very different things. Too many people use the terms interchangeably, to mean the same things. They don't. Stress is a part of everyday life. Stress "happens." It may be an abundance of it in police work, but almost every cop experiences it to one degree or another--often to an unhealthy level. Trauma, however, "happens to you" and is an injury to the brain that causes PTSD.
For many officers, police adminstration--the sergeant, the chief, departmental policies, internal affairs--are a constant irritant that seems to be there every day. This can lead to "chronic stress," which can cause headaches, stomach problems, insomnia, anxiety and even depression. Stress or chronic stress do not cause PTSD, however (see DSM-IV). To put it simply, as John Violanti did in a conversation, "In a diagnosis of PTSD, there must be a traumatic event (or multiple traumatic events such as cops see) in the person's life. Without a traumatic event, no PTSD."
WHY do cops commit suicide?
You hear a lot of guesswork going on about this. Many programs like to insist that the main reasons are marital discord, alcohol and financial reasons. These, however, are often merely the "presenting problems" and may only be symptomatic of the deeper problem--PTSD. It appears this is rarely taken into consideration and may skew the figures. Research remains to be done, although in 2012 three departments did finally acknowledge that their police suicides were directly attributable to job stress or trauma.
Retiree suicides are ten times higher than active officers
No proof. Here's the scoop: In 1980, C. W. Gaska did an unpublished doctoral thesis and in it studied the Detroit police department, comparing its retirees to the white, male general population of Detroit. He concluded from this that retired police officers commit suicide at a rate of 335/100,000. Additionally, he concluded that disabled police retirees commit suicide at a rate of 2,616/100,000. These astronomical figures were quoted all too often.
What do Gaska's figures mean? Very little, it turns out.
The Department of Commerce says 56% of officers retire on disabilities. If we listen to Gaska, one out of every five disability retired officers is doomed to suicide. With over 850,000 officers cycling through, hundreds of thousands of officers (and thousands at this very moment) would be killing themselves or preparing to do so. The survival rate for service retired officers would also have to be dismal.
More currently, researchers like Dr. John Violanti feel that “police officers continue to experience the ‘residual’ of trauma after separating from police service. Lengthy research (and the only complete research to date) completed by Dr. Violanti in 2012 (http://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2012/08/policestress/ ) revealed the following: “The notion that retired officers are more likely to commit suicide was examined using employment, retirement, and mortality records for a larger group of Buffalo police officers who worked for five years or more between 1950 and 2005. Suicide rates were 8.4 times higher in working officers as compared to separated/retired officers.”
You can only trust another cop when you're having a problem. If you were a forklift driver, would you only talk to forklift drivers? You deserve better. But you're "special," you say? Well, like countless other "special" officers, you can stay special until you lose your family, end up in a hospital or take your own life.
Get serious about things. Start with a peer support officer or, better, see a professional when you need help. Coffee shop therapy with a beat partner may get you through the rest of the shift, but when your shift ends get to work on finding a good therapist. Your peer support officer may be able to help you, as well as your EAP. Other options include your family doctor or clergy. The "police family" is good to have for the parties and the ew-rahs but, just like Aunt Maude's homespun remedies, amateur advice is well intentioned but nothing more--and can be lethal in the end.
The key is: the sooner the better.
Cops can only trust "Cop-Docs" as therapists.
Sadly, there are a lot of cops going without therapy because they believe this. The problem is, there just aren't enough "cop-docs" to go around. There are probably far fewer "cop docs" that would fit well for YOU. Having been a cop or seen a lot of cops doesn't mean they're good therapists (or good for you), any more than an "IRS agent" doing your taxes. You don't need someone who swaps war stories with you. You do want someone who knows what they're doing therapeutically, and not even all therapists are identical. It takes flexible skills far beyond having been in law enforcement. Go to our page, FAQS, and watch the video on "How to Pick a Good Therapist."
If you are still convinced you must see a "cop doc," do review the criteria for choosing a therapist on the same page.
"One-third of all police officers have PTSD and don't know it"
This came from an unsubstantiated "guess" by a retired officer in an old CALEA article, without anything to back it up. It was quickly snatched up and circulated around as "fact" and the source forgotten (this is one of those classic cases where, after a time, everyone was quoting everyone else who was quoting as the "source").
Robinson, Sigman, and Wilson (1997), did find that 13 percent of a (small) sample of 100 suburban police officers met the criteria for PTSD. Similar studies found varying results, ranging from 7 percent to 25 percent, depending on the department. John Violanti, in 2012, probably the most reliable researcher on police suicides, concludes that approximately 15 - 18 percent of working police officers in the US are having undiagnosed symptoms of PTSD.
However, an additional number of officers can be expected to be suffering from anxiety that falls short of "PTSD" yet seriously affects their work and home lives. This supports our belief that, for every suicide, thousands of officers continue to work, untreated and suffering from work-related anxiety disorders. Many of these may have PTSD, but no one knows how many actually "have PTSD and don't know it."
Most police suicides are staged by the officer and/or covered up by investigators.
Dr. John Violanti and others did two separate studies (1996 and another more comprehensive in 2010) to determine the number of misclassified deaths that should have been recorded as suicides by police officers. Both studies held firm at 17 percent, the figure used in the 2008 statistical study of police suicides. Unfortunately, the data used could only be based on NIOSH/NOMS data from 1984-1998. Insurance is rarely an issue, since suicide clauses are only two years. Whether departments are as daring, since 1998, about covering up evidence (a crime) in an investigation such as a suicide is anyone's guess.
During the two-year NSOPS study, we did watch for unexplained deaths of younger officers and found little evidence of the above coverups. In fact, in one case in which an officer attempted to disguise his own suicide, the department (Norwalk, Conn.) admirably took extensive measures to investigate and come to a finding.
PTSD must be traced to “One Big Event.”
A frequent belief. The “Big Event,” “The Critical Incident."
All eyes are focused on the shootout, the multiple fatality accident, the death of a child and other quickly recognizable events. Everyone goes into high gear and the rescue systems hum along efficiently.
BUT we need to recognize the important role of cumulative stress in police work—the daily wounding of the soul over years, over decades.
“I was really afraid.”
“I didn’t know what to do.”
“I was lost.”
“I made a terrible mistake.”
“I wish I could have done something."
“Sometimes I wonder if this is the job for me.”
"I should have reported that."
To quote one expert, “In some ways, a cop's work may be even more traumatic than that of a soldier sent into a war zone. The police officer's job, over many years, exposes and reexposes them to traumatic events that would make anybody recoil in horror.”
"PTSD is a self-inflicted malady."
This is macho-rubbish, spread by several of the charismatics on the lecture circuit. PTSD is not "self-harming," like cutting. It is an emotional and physical injury with clearly diagnosable signs that are the result of an external cause--in fact, PTSD is the one mental illness in the DSM that is purely the result of an external source. There is much an individual can do to prepare for a traumatic or even cumulative events. In so doing, one can lessen the impact or avoid the impacts entirely. But to suggest that, if an individual is traumatized that it is somehow the person's "fault" is utterly false. The most effective form of stigmatization is blaming the victim.
|Lt. Michael Pigott, NYPD. Using his best judgement to order tasering a mental patient who then fell to his death, Piggott was stripped of his gun and badge, hidden away and publicly "thrown under the bus" by his department. Traumatized and deeply humiliated by this treatment, he took his life. A line of duty death?
Law Enforcement is "One Big Family.”
If it is, it’s a classic dysfunctional family. Secrets abound, masks are the norm, and departmental betrayal is seen as one of law enforcement's greatest stressors.
Much education is needed within this "police family." Far too many officers continue to condemn police suicides as the acts of "cowards," "weaklings" and worse. Too many turn their backs on the wives and children of officers lost to suicide, as though these innocents somehow brought shame upon the department.
Until education on suicide, its dynamics and real impacts, both on the victim and the family, are brought to bear--seriously--on both the troops and police administrators, these crude traditions will continue. Until then, until we accept all of our fallen heroes into the fold, we are not a "family"--at best, we are a "community."
"Suicide is an angry act." "Suicide is a selfish act.'”
Suicide is a painful act.
No person wants to die. For some of us, however, the choices seem so few and the pain so great that the only way of finding escape from the pain seems to be suicide. When I exchanged my gun for the telephone and went to the hospital, my first step was to begin crying—the pain was that deep. No one had told me I could do that. I was unable to see there was an alternative.
Suicide is a "permanent solution to a temporary problem."
This is the worst of all. Phil Donahue was the first to coin this simplistic phrase and, in so doing, set mental health back 50 years. Don't worsen the situation by giving these patronizing homilies to a depressed person. Like "Been there, done that," you're advertising your inability to empathize with the individual's pain, which is not going to respond to quotes from the "Farmer's Almanac." The person committing suicide had a mental disorder, and that this was not a decision made in the same way you decided to buy that big boat. It is excruciatingly painful and performed under the influence of an overwhelming mental illness brought on by causes not a conscious choice.
"Police Officers Who Commit Suicide Are Cowards."
Far from it, many officers who take their own lives are proven heroes that have survived incidents many cops would cringe at.
Still, this remark is heard often. Again, it is a failing to understand that PTSD and depression, followed by suicide, are the actions of someone in the grips of a mental disorder--not cowardice. The act is not their "fault" or choice--the source of their illness was brought on, often, by horrors and trauma you could not imagine.
In many cases, it shows a tremendous amount of fear on the part of these officers who, like any group, will take refuge in superstitions or false belief systems. "If it can happen to Officer Smith, it could happen to me. I don't want to believe it could happen to me, so I will dismiss Officer Smith as a weakling and a coward."
Hiding suicides prevents "Copycat Police Suicides"
There is no evidence in the distribution of police suicides to suggest this is true, particularly in heavily populated areas where many officers know the deceased. We see little commonality between grown police officers and teenagers, who fail to understand the permanency of death and do commit suicide in patterns that seem obvious.
The media, under guidelines that see police officers as "public figures" in the same way as members of the city council or other local personalities, has a right to report on a police suicide, whether we like it or not. It is categorized as "news" and, in most communities, police officers are seen as "public figures." The only thing "wrong" about it is when police chiefs announce, the next day, that the suicide was for personal reasons--and fail in their duty to determine the real cause by examining the history and circumstances leading up to it.
Finally, by hiding police suicides, departments cost more more police lives by depriving researchers of the very information they need to understand the causes and prevent them from happening. This is criminal.