|The Ontario Provincial Police, Canada
BADGE OF LIFE FAQS
Q. Our goal is to watch other officers for "the signs of suicide," right?
A. Wrong. Your job is to take care of yourself, emotionally. You're no good to anyone if you don't do that first (that includes your fellow officers, your family and the public). No one can tell better if an officer is in trouble than the officer himself--but you need to learn and practice some important steps in order to do that. This includes seeing a therapist at least once a year (our "mental health checks") and learn what personal strengths you have to keep yourself out of emotional danger. By doing this, by learning not just about suicide, but about anxiety, stress, trauma and PTSD, you can be ready for trouble BEFORE it happens and know the steps to follow.
More on this is in our Emotional Self Care Training. There's no reason to wait until an officer is ready to jump off the cliff before getting him help any more. Like firearms practice and other training, there is a thing called "readiness" in both our physical and mental health.
Q. Should I see a departmental psychologist or an "outside" therapist?
A. This is an individual choice. Many departmental psychologists, or those on contract to the department, are highly confidential and credible. Some officers fear, however, that the department's psychologist is a "pipeline" to the chief. In such cases, we encourage the person to seek the services of an outside therapist for their own comfort and where confidentiality is guaranteed (unless the person is a danger to self or others or in cases of elder/child abuse).
Q. How many police suicides are there each year?
A. There are between 125 - 150 police suicides each year. In 2008 there were 141, 2009 had 143 and, in 2012, there were 126 police suicides. These numbers are the result of three years of study. There is no reason to exaggerate them. They are high enough. For more details, read the Police Suicide Study 2008 - 2012. Two to three times as many officers commit suicide than are killed by the guns of felons (emphasis--not "than die in the line of duty"). For more on some of the mythology on police suicide numbers that run as high as 300, 400 and even 800, go to POLICE SUICIDE MYTHS.
Q. What is the police suicide rate?
A. For 2009 (141 police suicides nationally) the suicide rate was approximately 17/100/00. The general public was 11/100,000. Law enforcement is right behind the Army, which has a rate of 20/100,000. Again, for those who claim the rate is much higher (400 to 500 suicides equals a rate of 60/100,000), there is no reason (or mathematical logic) for such exaggeration. It's high enough, already.
Q. How many police suicides are work related?
A. None--or so say most chiefs of police. According to departments across the US in 2008 and 2009, not a single police suicide was attributed to the stress and trauma of the job. In 2012, however, three departments finally acknowledged that their suicides were attributable to stress on the job. We believe the number to be much higher.
Chiefs acknowledge that police work is a highly stressful, traumatic job. They admit the job the work can cause severe emotional trauma and PTSD (some departments still try to "outlaw" PTSD). When a suicide occurs on a department, however, too many forget all this. Even in the most obvious case of horrific trauma on the job, few want to admit the possibility that the death had anything to do with the job. Instead, it was a "weakness" on the part of the officer. The officer had personal problems. It was the spouse's fault. It certainly had nothing to do with PTSD from the job.
Q. How many retiree suicides are there?
Currently there are no valid studies to give us a valid number, at this point. Unfortunately, in 1980, C. W. Gaska did his 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 staggering rate of 22,616/100,000.
However, what do Gaska's figures really mean? Probably not much. An off-hand guess is that there are easily 50,000 service retired and 50,000 disability retired officers in the United States today. If Gaska were correct, we would see 11,500 retired officers killing themselves each year. The chance of this kind of carnage is mathematically unlikely. Additionally, unlike active duty officers, retirees are extremely difficult to track. They move, disperse into the community, lose touch with their departments, and as they reach advanced ages they often pass on and news of their passing escapes notice beyond the local area.
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 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.”
Q. Aren't a lot of police suicides disguised as accidents, like gun cleaning kits or by officers running into bridge abutments?
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. Whether departments are as confident today about covering up evidence in a suicide is anyone's guess.
During the two-year NSOPS study, we watched for premature deaths of officers and found little evidence of the above antics. In fact, in one case in which an officer attempted to disguise his own suicide, the department took great measures to investigate and come to a finding of a self-inflicted death.
Q. What is the "average Life Expectancy" of a police officer?
A. John Violanti maintains that an average life span for police officers is 66 years, or 10.6 years after retirement, adjusted for age and gender. This is lower than the average for males in the United States (76 years of age). Caring for oneself physically and emotionally are ways one can increase the likelihood of a longer life.
Q. Someone said I should go to AA.
A. Congratulations. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is just one of many "Twelve-Step" programs designed to help people with problems ranging from substance abuse to personal and relationship issues. They are not "religious." Go to AA if you're an alcoholic--you know if you are. Go to one of the others (such as Emotions Anonymous) if you're not. They can help tremendously with stress, emotional issues and relationships.
Q. What is post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
A. PTSD is formally defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (commonly referred to as the DSM-IV, recently revised to the DSM-V with minor changes). The text from the DSM-V is at Post Trautmatic Stress Disorder.
||Photo by Female Officer
Q. Is there an “easier” definition of PTSD?
A. There are many. The following is one of many you can find on the internet. It is provided only for your general reference—don’t self diagnose! If you feel you may be suffering the effects of PTSD, depression or any other condition that has you “off bubble,” seek professional advice.
Q. Does PTSD have to be caused by one big event?
A. No. It can result from one catastrophic event or from an accumulation of traumatic events over time. Contrary to popular opinion, cumulative PTSD can be deep and long lasting and prove a greater challenge to overcome than single-event PTSD. Eric Wahgren, in BusinessWeek, wrote, “In some ways, a cop's work may be even more traumatic than that of a soldier sent into a war zone, experts say. ‘The police officer's job, over many years, exposes and re-exposes them to traumatic events that would make anybody recoil in horror.’
The key phrase in the above quote is "over many years." The exposure of a combat soldier for 12 - 18 months is intense and often terrifying. The police officer, however, gets no break--he is not "rotated home" for relief. The trauma referred to continues, unabated, for 15, 20, 30 years.
Q. How does PTSD affect the family?
A. "Trauma survivors with PTSD often experience problems in their intimate and family relationships or close friendships. PTSD involves symptoms that interfere with trust, emotional closeness, communication, responsible assertiveness, and effective problem solving."
Sadly, police agencies don't understand how PTSD can be behind relationship problems. An officer suffering from the effects of PTSD can often be expected to have difficulties maintaining close relationships, and may have other difficulties such as substance abuse, work problems, anger problems, etc. Police supervisors are not trained to recognize this, however, and instead of seeing these as trouble signs to be looked into, exacerbate the problem. When a suicide occurs, they refuse to look further and, of course, take the "shortcut" and blame it on the argument the officer had with his partner the night before. Easy come, easy go.
Q. Shouldn't I pick a therapist who knows all about "cop work?"
A. This is an individual decision but should not keep you from seeking help. An important thing to remember is that a good therapist treats human beings, not cops. Sadly, we have officers going without excellent help because they are adamant the only person who can possibly help them is a "cop doc." If you are experiencing problems, your priorities should be, in the following order:
- Finding a therapist who is licensed by the state.
- Finding a therapist you're comfortable with.
- Finding a good therapist who is well versed in PTSD.
- Lastly, finding a therapist who is a cop, has been on ride-alongs--AND meets the above criteria.
HOW TO PICK A THERAPIST: Dr. Anne Bisek, Clinical Psychologist, walks the viewer through the steps of when and how to find a good therapist, the alarm signals an emergency responder should be aware of, issues of confidentiality and the types of therapy available.
Q. Should I see a psychiatrist or psychologist?
A. A psychiatrist can prescribe medications, whereas a therapist and psychologist cannot. There are some clear guidelines under which you should see a psychiatrist, such as thoughts of suicide.
As a general rule, departmental policies require that officers tell them when they are taking medications when such medications affect the officer's performance negatively (Emily Keram, MD, WCPR). If an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication does not affect the officer's performance negatively under these policies, the officer is under no obligation to report it. You don't, for example, have to tell your department that you're taking purple pills for acid reflux. Nonetheless, it doesn't hurt to be familiar with your department's policy.
A good question to ask yourself is: Would you rather work with an officer who is stable and alert on antidepressants or one who is depressed and "half there?"
Q. What are the warning signs of suicide?
A. From the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, these are the traditional "signs of suicide," similar to those taught by many police departments.
While it is good to know these, as the suicidal individual may display them, we must bear in mind that police officers are trained to hide them.
Threatening to hurt or kill oneself or talking about wanting to hurt or kill oneself.
Giving away valued possessions.
Looking for ways to kill oneself by seeking access to firearms, available pills, or other.
Talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide when these actions are out of the ordinary for the person.
Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities - seemingly without thinking
Feeling trapped - like there's no way out.
Withdrawing from friends, family, and society.
Feeling anxious, agitated, or unable to sleep or sleeping all the time.
Feeling anger, often self-directed.
Experiencing dramatic mood changes.
Seeing no reason for living or having no sense of purpose in life
Again, bear in mind that law enforcement officers are highly experienced at hiding their feelings. Sadly, we've trained them to be good at it. This makes the spotting of traditional signs and symptoms even more difficult and may explain a great many of the "surprise" suicides that seem to plague law enforcement today.