POLICE SUICIDE MYTHS
How do they start?
Police suicides are clearly a crisis. Over the years, however, law enforcement has accumulated some of the worst misinformation imaginable about them. 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 someone collecting a large 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 merely 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. When someone says, for example, “Studies have shown that police officers have the highest rate of divorces (or alcoholism),” write or 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.
DEBUNKING THE MYTHS
Are there really 300 or more police suicides per year? Actual published studies show there are 100 to 150 police suicides per year, at a rate of 12 – 17/100,000 depending on the year. The rate of suicide for the general public is 13/100,000. While the difference between police officers and the general public may not seem substantial, the truth is that law enforcement suicides should be even lower than they are. After all, recruits undergo extensive background checks and psychological testing and screening, which should prevent or at least lower the likelihood of future PTSD and other anxiety disorders. Unfortunately, this is not true, and in spite of these positive influences, suicides in law enforcement continue to be high.
It should be noted that some groups have, in fact, gained attention by asserting that police suicides range from 300 to 500 per year. Investigation has found these to be “guesses,” and there are no studies to back up the figures. Unfortunately, such figures have gained attention in the media because they’re exciting.
Specific figures on suicides can be found on our Home Page.
More cops commit suicide than are killed in the line of duty. It’s actually more accurate to say, “More cops die of suicide than are killed by gunfire and traffic accidents combined.” In 2016, our last study, 108 officers died of suicide, whereas 97 officers died of traffic accidents and gunfire combined. It’s close. A new police suicide study is in progress for 2017.
Cops have the highest rates of alcoholism and divorce. While these are widely held beliefs—and could conceivably be true—there are no actual studies or data to back them up.
The “biggest traumas” in police work are the administration and the bureaucracy. This is a difficult one to explain. Officers complain frequently that one of their greatest stressors is in the office—and this is often true. The problem is, stress does not cause trauma. Stress and trauma are two very different things and too many people use the terms interchangeably to mean the same things. They don’t. Stress is a part of everyday life. Stress “happens.” There’s certainly be an overabundance of it in police work, and 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 administration–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. With exceptions, stress or chronic stress do not cause PTSD, however. Dr. John Violanti, a noted researcher and author on the issues of stress and trauma in law enforcement, stated, “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, there’s no PTSD.”
Why do officers commit suicide? You hear a lot of guesswork going on about this. Information is scarce because departments are reluctant to do a “psychological autopsy” to determine the cause of the suicide. Some 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, however, and that may skew the figures. Much research remains to be done.
Retiree suicides are ten times higher than active officers Again, this is a frequently cited assertion, yet there’s no concrete evidence of this, particularly inasmuch as no one really knows how many retirees there are—or where. 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. No one can say with certainty how many police retirees are even out there. There are conflicting studies and opinions on this subject. Researchers like Violanti believe that “police officers continue to experience the residual of trauma after separating from police service.” This is clear, but considerable national research would be needed to come to any kind of valid conclusion in this area–it would be difficult, at best. One detailed article on this can be found at Police Retiree Suicides.
Many police suicides are staged by the officer and/or covered up as accidents by departments. 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 by coroners as suicides by police officers. Both studies held firm at 17 percent, the figure used in the 2008 – 2012 statistical studies of police suicides. Insurance itself is rarely an issue, since suicide clauses are generally only two years. Whether departments are still as daring about covering up evidence (itself a crime) in an investigation such as a suicide is anyone’s guess.
PTSD must be traced to “One Big Event.”
This is a frequent belief-–the “Big Event,” “The Critical Incident.” All eyes are focus on the shootout, the multiple fatality accident, the death of a child and other quickly recognizable events. These are the critical incidents. BUT we need to recognize the important role of cumulative events in police work—the daily wounding of the soul over years, over decades—that can result in PTSD. Such events include the constant exposure to death, the screams of the innocent, the struggles during “routine” arrests, the mistakes, the pursuits, and many other factors. 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 re-exposes them to traumatic events that would make anybody recoil in horror.”
Law Enforcement is “One Big Family.” In many cases, this is true. It can also be a classic dysfunctional family. When things are not right, 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.
“Suicide is an angry act” or “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.
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 such quotes.
“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 that are unimaginable to the average person.
If I see a psychiatrist or therapist, I’ll be fired or suspended. This is a common fear among police officers—that the departmental psychologist or employee assistance program is a conduit to the chief. It’s the chief’s responsibility to ensure that there is absolute confidentiality involved and that the EAP and psychologist are operating under strict guidelines when it comes to confidentiality. If, however, an officer is still concerned about confidentiality, we encourage them to go on the “outside” and retain the services of a licensed therapist under their health insurance. There, ethical guidelines require strict confidentiality from the department, up to and including whether the officer has even been there. The only exceptions are when a person is in danger of suicide, a threat to others or suspected of child or elder abuse.
If I encourage my officers to see a therapist once a year, it will result in more PTSD claims. First, PTSD is a hard diagnosis to “fake,” given the scrutiny under which it is placed by the treating psychiatrist and departmental / workers compensation psychiatrists. If one wants to malinger, it’s easier to select something like a made up back injury. Second, if it is a valid claim, you want it treated and not have the officer on the streets generating complaints, lawsuits, sick leave, alcoholism, marital problems and injuries that are due to inattention. Preventing these things is a huge cost saving. The officer with PTSD or depression who is preoccupied is a danger to himself, the public, and the officers around him who are depending on him to be at his prime. You want him or her treated and, if it’s early, you can get him back on the streets–this is the advantage of the annual mental health check.