It’s imperative that we recognize our officers need us to give them more than the tools and acronyms to help spot potential suicides and tips on where to seek help when they are in crisis.

It’s not “just” about suicide. What this means is that, as critical as our suicide prevention programs are, they are self-limiting. These programs were created in response to numbers. “There are too many police suicides.”

“We need to reduce the police suicides.” Recognizing that “numbers” are nothing more than the reflection of a far deeper problem in the ranks of law enforcement, we must find a way of not only caring for the suicidal/critical officer, but also tackle the root causes that got him there and find ways to keep him off that path.  To put it simply, we need to keep officers from BECOMING suicidal, not wait until they get there.

There are 125 – 150 police suicides each year–a high rate compared to the general public, but a “needle in the haystack” when they’re mixed in with almost a million officers.  But think–for every police suicide, there are a thousand more officers out there, still working and suffering from undiagnosed PTSD.  And there are still another thousand suffering from anxiety, depression, substance abuse and other maladaptive behaviors.  This we can do something about, and here are where the potential suicides are.

The goal is to create a workforce that is not only healthier but benefits a department through the myriad cost-savings obvious to everyone: fewer suicides, lawsuits and complaints, fewer cases of alcoholism and drug abuse involving officers, less sick leave, fewer divorces and depressed officers, fewer patrol car collisions, lessened chances of officer injuries and deaths from anxious and preoccupied officers, and much more.

This will require a new perspective, one that takes into account all officers and addresses the present as well as an unpredictable future:

  1.  Increased/enhanced training at the academy and squad levels (at least annually at the squad level).
  2. A program of voluntary, confidential annual mental health checks with a therapist, with the police chief “leading the way.”  Developed in 2006, visits should be at least once a year, voluntary, with a therapist in-house or “outside” of the department.
  3. An ongoing suicide prevention/intervention program. 
  4. Critical Incident Stress Debriefing programs for officers who have clearly been impacted by some sudden (generally critical) trauma that is visibly identifiable within the first 24 hours.
  5. A system to assist surviving families of suicides. It is time to stop hiding suicides in the basement as a “family secret”  and casting them out after several polite phone calls. ESC training should include education on the causes of suicide, including work-related trauma, as well as the physical nature of a PTSD injury.  Stigma should be discussed openly and myths debunked. As a part of policy and procedure, families and children should be included with other surviving families in departmental activities, such as holidays.
  6. A policy by which information on police suicides can be reported to the public/media without evasion, shame or cover-up. Police officers are recognized by the media as “public figures” and, attached, is a level of “right to know” with limitations on insensitive details.  Further, such information is valuable in research, allowing study into the causes that can determine means of prevention–withholding valuable information can cost police lives.
  7. Determination of cause: A followup procedure by which to determine whether a suicide was in the line of duty (work related/due to trauma). This means doing a full investigation of the history behind the suicide and the circumstances leading up to it (often referred to as a psychological autopsy).  Currently, it is not unusual for a department to announce, within a day or two, the “cause” of a suicide–which is, not surprisingly, never related to the job.

Police chiefs must “lead the way” on all of the above.  It’s incumbent that the chief be the first to seek an annual “mental health check” and use it to personally encourage the troops to do the same.

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