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To Cope or Not to Cope

That’s not really the question, is it?  The real questions are: Why is it that some individuals are better at handling life’s challenges than others?  What separates those who control stress from those who are controlled by stress? 

For some reason, it seems that bad habits are easy to pick up and hard to break, and good habits are just the opposite – hard to pick up and easy to break.  Just think New Year’s resolution.  The unhealthy coping mechanisms discussed here are common to everyone that is dealing in some ways with being “stressed out,” but they seem especially relevant to members of first responder professions.  Are you plagued by any of these unhealthy means of coping with stress:

  • Excessive caffeine consumption.  Caffeine itself is not bad but consuming too much can lead to such health problems as headaches, anxiety, trouble sleeping, irritability, respiratory issues, chest pain, thirst, and frequent urination, and even psychological or physical dependency (addiction). 
  • Smoking.  During times of stress, smoking a cigarette can feel almost necessary, and because of the physical addiction properties in addition to the social and lifestyle factors associated with smoking, it has been said that quitting smoking can be as difficult as quitting heroin!
  • Compulsive spending.  While buying yourself a nice gift once in a while can be a nice pick-me-up, and an effective self-care strategy, compulsively buying things to relieve stress or feel good about yourself, spending money you don’t have on things you don’t need, can only cause more financial stress in the long run, and cause feelings of shame, a cluttered home, and add to the stress you were trying to alleviate.
  • Emotional eating.  If eating the wrong things becomes the main coping mechanism for stress, it can lead to compromised health, excessive weight, and additional stress stemming from these effects.  A poor diet can cause additional stress also by leading to blood sugar imbalances that make stressful situations seem more overwhelming.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption.  The relationship between alcoholism and stress is not in dispute, and the relationship between police officers coping with extreme amounts of stress and attempting to find relief through alcohol consumption is not in dispute either.  It is no coincidence that in a study done regarding police suicide, data showed that the majority of the individuals completing a suicide had alcohol in their system at the time.  While a drink, sometimes two, can be okay, excessive drinking can cause a great deal of turmoil in other parts of the individual’s life and contributes to greater amounts of stress in the long run.  It is best to find other methods of coping with stress that do not actually exacerbate the problem. 

You may have seen or experienced some or all of these unhealthy coping mechanisms.  You may also have heard that there are better ways to cope with stress than the behaviors that were described.  As previously stated, people seem to find it difficult to begin and maintain a regimen of activities that actually help alleviate the symptoms of stress and also provide a defensive shield against their future onslaught.  Here are some of the simplest things that anyone can do to bring stress relief into everyday life:

  • Get moving.  Physical activity plays a key role in managing stress. Focused movement helps to get the nervous system back into balance.  Those who have been traumatized or have experienced the immobilization stress response (the “freeze” reaction) find that getting active can help them to become “unstuck.”
  • Eat a healthy diet.  Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress. Start your day with a healthy breakfast, reduce their caffeine and sugar intake, add plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and cut back on alcohol and nicotine.  Further, the more committed you become to eating in healthy ways the less likely you are to use unhealthy foods as a coping mechanism for stress.
  • Get plenty of sleep.  Sleep is the most important component of renewing our bodies on a daily basis.  It has become an issue in modern day America because of our fast-paced society.  Many first responders seem to wear their lack of sleep as a badge of honor, as if sleeping less means they must be stronger and better at what they do.  They justify it by saying, “I don’t need more than 5 hours of sleep,” which may be true if you also “need” to double your risk for cardiovascular disease and increase your risk of premature death by 24%, because that’s what the research says is going to happen!   The issue is that lack of sleep takes away the recovery time we need to bring our stress levels down.
  • Set aside relaxation time.  Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the opposite of the fight or flight stress response.  There is plenty of evidence that taking time to relax actually boosts productivity, so there’s no need to view taking a break as being lazy or a waste of time.  A settled mind is a productive mind.
  • Engage socially.  Research tells us that the single most powerful factor in human resilience is interpersonal connection – social support.  The simple act of talking face to face with another human being can release hormones that reduce stress even when the you are unable to alter the stressful situation.  Knowing that others “have your back” is an extremely powerful motivator, so rather than avoiding people altogether when you’re stressed, seek out the company of those in your social network that can both cheer you up and cheer you on.

Let’s go back to the questions we asked at the beginning.  Why is it that some individuals are better at handling life’s challenges than others?  What separates those who control stress from those who are controlled by stress?  The choices we make.  The disciplines we adopt.  The decision be an overcomer versus being overcome. Meanwhile, if you are struggling with the stresses of the job or of life in general and are looking for some resources for help, please reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org and one of our peer support specialists will be happy to help.  If you are in crisis now and need immediate help, please text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor 24/7/365 – always free, always confidential.

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The Tie that Binds: From Trauma to Addiction

There is plenty of research available to confirm that there is, indeed, a link between trauma and addiction.  Even childhood trauma – various types of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), loss of a parent, witnessing domestic violence – increases one’s risk of developing an addiction in adulthood (Feletti et al., 1998). 

Our stress response system is designed to alert us to danger, and when the danger is over, it is supposed to allow us to relax again.  In children suffering from chronic trauma, the system becomes dysregulated and never has the chance to “calm down.”  The stress system actually malfunctions to the extent that it is always “on,” meaning the sufferer experiences continuous stress arousal, anxiety, hypervigilance, and alertness (De Bellis & Zisk, 2014).  The dysregulation of the stress system leads to negative effects on the immune system, emotional regulation skills, cognitive skills, executive functioning, and may even increase the risk for neurodegenerative diseases (Dunlavey et al., 2018).

Why does this lead to addiction, though?  Because alcohol and other substances change the way a person feels by producing pleasure (even for a short time), and reduces feelings of unhappiness or uneasiness.  The addiction provides some temporary relief from chronic hyperarousal and anxiety.  Gambling addictions, especially with electronic machines, lulls players into sort of a trance so they forget about everything except the machine (Schull, 2012).  This all means that individuals with a history of experiencing trauma are likely going to be more vulnerable to some form of addiction as a means of regulating their mood, quieting unwanted, intrusive thoughts, and suppressing the arousal caused by the steady flow of stress hormones into their system (Levin et al., 2021; van der Kolk, 2014).

Is there a genetic link between trauma and addiction?  Technically, yes, but that’s probably a little more complicated than we have the space to go into here.  Suffice to say that people exposed to trauma and who also have a certain genetic structure may have certain responses “triggered” in them that cause them to lean toward some type of addictive behavior.  But it’s important to remember that this does not happen with everyone.  In fact, a supportive environment is shown to help prevent that “triggering” from taking place (Jaffe, 2018).

What are the implications of this evidence for first responders?  Well, can you think of a group of people more familiar with a stress response system that seems to be in a constant state of arousal?  I can’t.  A key lesson to learn from all this is that if a supportive environment can help people avoid descending into a negative spiral toward addiction, then our agencies should do a better job of providing the necessary support.  That could come in the form of an overall wellness program that addresses the daily stressors of the job, critical incident stress, and even stressors outside the job that if addressed will allow the employee to function better on the job.

We consistently advocate peer support as a necessary part of the continuum of care for first responders.  In cases of addiction, peers are best able to help one another by encouraging the person suffering from addiction to seek out professional help as quickly as possible.  Our peer support specialists can have that initial conversation with you if you’re concerned about your own situation, and we can direct you toward culturally competent professionals in your area that can get you to the right kind of assistance. Feel free to reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org for more information.

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Can We Ever End the Stigma?

Certainly, the things we’ve talked about so far are definitely contributing to the problem of suicide in law enforcement, but the one thing that we really need to address that, unless we fix that, nothing else will really matter is:  the STIGMA associated with asking for help.

Our research shows that about 90% of all officers admit that they are affected emotionally by the things they see and do on the job.  So we have to ask, then, whey they don’t seek help, even when they know they need it.  In fact, in the research that we mentioned previously, we asked exactly that.  And in the over 900 open-ended responses we received, the one word used most frequently in those responses was the word “stigma.”

Further research shows that 80% of those responding believe that the stigma is perpetuated by their peers.  In other words, even though an officer knows that when he or she looks around at fellow officers, 9 out of 10 of them are experiencing some level of emotional impact from the job, they believe that 8 out of 10 of those same officers would tell them that they need to “suck it up” and keep going, and to NOT seek any kind of help or support to deal with the stress that they are experiencing.  Instead of acknowledging the effects of the stress of the job, and normalizing the need to address those effects, we keep insisting that people cram more and more stuff into their emotional trash can, and we never encourage them to take out the trash when they need to.

Also, 90% of those respondents said that the stigma is perpetuated by the department or agency they work for.  The don’t believe the administration will have their back.  They believe they will be punished in some way if they admit they need help, and they’ve developed that perception because they’ve seen it happen far too many times.

WHAT EXACERBATES THE PROBLEM OF LE SUICIDE

            Kind of continuing our current thought here, officers simply don’t have confidence that their leaders actually care about their mental and emotional well-being.  According to our research, department leaders only average 2.5 out of 5 stars on the following statements:

  • “Leaders in my department care about the mental wellness of their personnel.”
  • “Leaders in my department believe mental wellness is as important as physical wellness for a resilient and healthy workforce.”
  • “Leaders in my department know how to recruit and hire resilient personnel.”
  • “My department has institutionalized its belief in mental wellness through a set of well-written policies and practices.”
  • “My department has a well-trained peer support team consisting of personnel trained in some form of psychological first aid.”
  • “My department utilizes mental health practitioners who are familiar with emergency services culture and work, and who are trust by personnel within the department.”
  • “Leaders in my department know how to communicate with personnel suffering from emotional distress in ways that are supportive rather than threatening.”

Another issue is that officers are not always as resilient as they think they are.  They do their best to maintain a tough exterior, and they think they are doing themselves a favor by trying to disassociate from the mental and emotional strain, but as they get pushed into a condition of stress overload, you start seeing a progression of problems, such as:

  • Persistent irritability
  • Persistent anxiety
  • Periods of high blood pressure
  • Grinding teeth at night
  • Insomnia
  • Forgetfulness
  • Heart palpitations and/or unusual hearth rhythms
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Headaches

Unmanaged stress at that level can lead to worsening signs of distress that would include:

  • Persistent tardiness or absenteeism
  • Procrastination, turning work in late
  • Decreased sexual desire
  • Persistent tiredness in the mornings
  • Social withdrawal
  • Cynical attitudes
  • Resentfulness
  • Increased consumption of alcohol, caffeinated drinks
  • Apathy

Further unmanaged stress at that level pushes people farther into stress overload, and can result in:

  • Chronic sadness or depression
  • Chronic stomach or bowel problems
  • Chronic physical and/or mental fatigue
  • Chronic headaches
  • The desire to “drop out” of society
  • The desire to move away from work, friends, perhaps even family
  • The desire to commit suicide

Finally, police officers don’t really trust mental health professionals and they are looking for alternatives to help address their needs when it comes to mental wellness, especially after critical incidents, but as a matter of routine as well.  Long story short, here’s what our research has told us:

When asked whether they would prefer a mandatory annual appointment with a mental health professional hired by their department or voluntary participation in an effective peer support program, 7 out of 10 officers said they would prefer to talk to a peer first.

Trust me, there is plenty of room on the continuum of care for both an effective peer support consisting of well-trained and dedicated officers, and the work of licensed mental health professionals for those cases that cannot be fully addressed by peers.  But I do strongly believe that peer support should always be the beginning point on the continuum of care.  In nearly every case when a peer needs to refer someone to a mental health professional, that person is more open to accessing that level of care, and more compliant with the recommendations of the therapist than if they are told by their administration that they must go see a clinician “or else.”

This is Part 4 and the last article of a series of articles on Confronting the Issue of Suicide and we want to thank you for taking time to read them. Meanwhile, if you are struggling with the stresses of the job or of life in general and are looking for some resources for help, please reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org and one of our peer support specialists will be happy to help. If you are in crisis now and need immediate help, please text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor 24/7/365 – always free, always confidential.

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All “Stressed Up” with No Place to Go

Next, let’s talk about the cumulative effects of chronic stress – the day-to-day tasks and responsibilities of doing the job that can eventually take a heavy toll on our personnel.  In our research, we’ve utilized a couple of tools to help us find out what police officers believe is causing them the most stress in their job.

The Operational Stress Questionnaire asks respondents to score 20 items relating to the tasks associated with police work according to the amount of stress they perceive as caused by each item.  Here are the top five most stressful tasks based on results we have received:

  • 5: Paperwork
  • 4: Feeling like you are always on the job
  • 3: Upholding a “higher image” in public
  • 2: Shift work
  • 1: Fatigue

The Organizational Stress Questionnaire asks respondents to score 20 items relating to the administrative and bureaucratic aspects of police work according to the amount of stress they perceive as caused by each item.  Here are the most stressful aspects based on the results we have received:

  • 5: Feeling like you always have to prove yourself to the organization
  • 4: Dealing with co-workers
  • 3: Inconsistent leadership style
  • 2: The feeling that different rules apply to different people
  • 1: Staff shortages

Then, of course, police officers also have to deal with critical incident stress.  It is said that between 50% and 60% of adults in the U.S. will suffer one traumatic event during their lifetime.  Truth be told, 100% of police officers will experience multiple traumatic events over the course of a career, including:

  • Line of duty death
  • Suicide of a colleague
  • Serious work-related injury
  • Multi-casualty / disaster / terrorism
  • Events with a high degree of threat to personnel
  • Significant events involving children
  • Events in which the victim is known to personnel
  • Events with excessive media interest
  • Events that are prolonged with a negative outcome
  • Any significantly powerful, overwhelming distressing event

            We also need to talk a little bit about trauma and stressor-related disorders.  There are a number of stress-related conditions that can show up, either because of the cumulative effects of chronic stress or in the aftermath of an especially traumatic event such as a critical incident on the job.  These include post-traumatic (critical incident) stress, Acute Stress Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Adjustment Disorder.

            Let’s start by talking about post-traumatic stress, otherwise known as critical incident stress.  Here are the basics that you need to know:

  • Notice here that I did not say “post-traumatic stress disorder.”  It is important to understand the difference between post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • About 95% of people experiencing a traumatic event will experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and those symptoms will show up with changes in their mental status, their emotions, their physical condition, their behavior, or even in how they view the world in the aftermath of the traumatic incident.
  • Evidence does show, though, that the majority of those people, through their own natural resiliency, will recover without any type of formal psychological intervention if they receive some form of early psychological intervention.  This is one of the reasons, of course, that we advocate so strongly for a peer support program in every public safety agency with a team of people that can provide that kind of intervention either for their own personnel, or to help personnel from other agencies around them.
  • Symptoms in the aftermath of a traumatic event will typically show up within the first 3 days and will typically be gone within 1-2 weeks.  Recovery may be gradual, but with the right kind of supports in place, recovery does happen.

Next, let’s take a look at Acute Stress Disorder (ASD).  If recovery in the aftermath of a critical incident has not happened within the 1-2 week time frame, if new symptoms come up, or if existing symptoms become more intense, then the individual should be evaluated by a mental health professional for Acute Stress Disorder (ASD).  About 30% of individuals experiencing post-traumatic stress will go on to develop this disorder.

  • Acute stress disorder has a specific set of symptoms that are listed in the DSM-5.  We’re not going to go into detail about those symptoms here, but again, duration of symptoms after a critical incident is the key to deciding whether someone should be evaluated by a clinician.
  • The good thing about acute stress disorder – if it’s possible to believe that anything is good about having a disorder – is that it is acute, meaning that the symptoms will go away, usually within about a month.

Next, we come to a discussion about the condition most believe is the worst stress-related disorder of all, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  According to the American Psychiatric Association, about half of the people who develop Acute Stress Disorder will go on to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  This can include family members who have been indirectly exposed to trauma, although in those cases that individual would likely be diagnosed with what is known as Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder versus receiving a diagnosis of PTSD. 

  • In addition to being caused by direct exposure to a specific traumatic event, PTSD may also develop in some cases due to repeated exposure to critical incidents on the job as a first responder
  • A key factor in the diagnosis of PTSD is that a legitimate diagnosis of PTSD cannot be made until at least 30 days have passed since the traumatic event that triggered the stress-related symptoms.
  • The symptoms may only include those from the specific list of symptoms in the DSM-5 and occur with the required frequency and intensity, otherwise a diagnosis of PTSD is not appropriate.  And the precipitating event MUST involve death, the threat of death, sexual assault, or the threat of sexual assault, otherwise a diagnosis of PTSD is not appropriate

Finally, we come to a condition known as Adjustment Disorder (AD).  This is another stress-related disorder that is sometimes diagnosed when a diagnosis of PTSD is not appropriate.  We may refer to this sometimes as “stress response syndrome.”  With this condition:

  • Stress related symptoms may not appear for a few weeks up to about 3 months in some people after some type of trigger event, and after a long period of time dealing with the same type of stressor.
  • The only 2 conditions under which the symptoms of adjustment disorder will go away are 1) if the underlying stressor is removed, or 2) if the sufferer learns more effective coping skills for managing the underlying stressor.
  • One of the reasons we believe this is such a serious condition is that research indicates that a person with a diagnosis of adjustment disorder is 19 times more likely to die by suicide than a person without that diagnosis.  For more information on our suicide awareness and prevention efforts, I would encourage you to visit our website at callforbackup.org.

There we have an overview of these common trauma and stressor-related disorders and the impact they can have on those who suffer from them. 

This is Part 3 of a series of articles on Confronting the Issue of Suicide and we encourage you to visit again for more installments in this series. Meanwhile, if you are struggling with the stresses of the job or of life in general and are looking for some resources for help, please reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org and one of our peer support specialists will be happy to help. If you are in crisis now and need immediate help, please text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor 24/7/365 – always free, always confidential.

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Is the Culture the Culprit?

Well, let’s start by talking about the culture of law enforcement and how both the positive and negative elements of that culture may be contributing to the mental wellness issues suffered by our personnel.  And we’re going to use a fairly simple definition of culture: “The way we do things around here.”

First, one way the culture can be described as positive is by the expectations that characterize both the agency and the people who choose to work in emergency services.  Meeting those expectations is critical to the success of the organization and ultimately to protect the lives and property that we are sworn to protect.  Those expectations include:

  • Having a strict sense of discipline and understanding that there are going to be rules, regulations, policies, and procedures that must adhered to.
  • Working in any of the emergency services requires a strong work ethic, and having a high regard for, and the personal capacity for, physical and mental toughness.
  • Being a protector is part of the job.  It goes without saying that those working in emergency services should be protective of their own families, but also of civilians, and they will come across as being chivalrous and altruistic in their approach to serving the public.
  • Finally, there will be a code of conduct that provides a framework for an organizational culture that reflects well-defined and strongly supported moral and ethical principles.  In other words, people who are willing to put on the uniform and serve others are, first and foremost, just good people.

Another way to describe the culture as positive is by taking a look at the leadership structure.  Every successful organization needs principled leaders, and those leaders need to be effective at inspiring the members of the organization to follow (and for the followers to ultimately to be developed into leaders themselves).  Here’s what this looks like in a good organization:

  • The organization is highly structured, and by nature must also be very authoritarian.  Not dictatorial, but authoritarian.  Someone has to be in charge, and while good leaders will listen and gain input from others, the decision of the leader must ultimately be followed.  The lives of people working in these organizations depends on this.  You may recall the line from the movie A Few Good Men when Col. Jessup says, “We follow orders, son.  We follow orders or people die!” 
  • Which leads to the second statement about leadership, which is that leaders expect loyalty from their subordinates and from their allies.  Everyone should want the leader to succeed, because if the leader succeeds, the organization succeeds.
  • Leaders, and followers of course, must be mission focused and goal-oriented.  Goals and objectives are clear, there become a right way and wrong way to accomplish the task, and leaders understand how to communicate those goals and objectives so that the mission at hand is accomplished. 

Finally, a positive aspect of emergency services culture is the nature of the personal commitment demonstrated by everyone in the organization.  In a great emergency services agency:

  • There is a warrior culture that is characterized by some of the most praiseworthy traits imaginable – bravery, duty, honor, loyalty.  In a successful organization, we are going to see every member displaying those traits.
  • There is the feeling of loyalty to comrades.  Everyone is in it together, and everyone will be concerned about building others up, and everyone is going to make sure that they are watching out for one another before, during, and after any incident to which they are called upon to respond.  They will never leave anyone behind!
  • And finally, the mission comes first above all else.  I’m reminded of the motto made famous by the Army’s 1st Infantry Division: “No mission too difficult, no sacrifice too great.  Duty first!”

That covers the positive aspects of the culture that is prevalent in law enforcement as well as in the military and other emergency services.  There are plenty of good reasons to do things a certain way, but a lot of the negative consequences that people working in emergency services may experience are caused by some of the very things that make that culture as successful as it is.

            There are, for example, some personal realities associated with the culture.  People working in emergency services come from a variety of backgrounds, and even though they are willing to commit to the same rules and regulations, the same sense of order, the same chain of command, and so on, they still bring with them their own personalities and their own unique life experiences.  Learning to conform to the common cultural expectations of the job will often mean:

  • That the level of commitment required to learn the job and do the job well may make the individual feel as though he or she is “married to the job.”  They often end up spending more time doing and thinking about the job than spending time doing things they personally enjoy or that their friends and family members wish they could do together.
  • It also may mean finding it difficult to juggle between the department and home life.  Whether that’s finding the appropriate and necessary balance in answering the question, “how was your day?” or whether that’s deciding not to volunteer for an extra detail or overtime shift in order to spend time with the family, those choices often become more difficult.
  • Many times, the job ends up becoming the identity.  It starts that way because we are so proud of what we do.  It ends that way because we don’t know how to do anything else.  Not surprising, it is believed that 80% of emergency services retiree suicides happen within the first 2-3 years of retirement.  Why?  One reason could be because they have lost their sense of identity to the job.

There are also some professional realities associated with the job.  The harmful effects of some of these things will vary from person to person, but here are some of the most common professional realities:

  • People working in any of the uniformed services end up feeling as though they should be able to control the outcomes of the situations they respond to, and they end up “keeping score” and keeping a record of their wins and losses.  While some of the wins can be exhilarating, the losses can be devastating.
  • They also suffer from problems associated with things like sleep deprivation.  Study after study has been done to determine what the “best” shift schedule would be, but there is still a lot of disagreement on that subject.  No matter the duration of the shift, many people working in emergency services realize they have too much to do and not enough time to do it, and many times the stress of the job as well as some of their personal habits can make it difficult for them to get the sleep they need to be recharged and ready for the next day.
  • In many cases, the job also comes with a lot of public scrutiny and criticism.  No matter which service you work for, there will always be that.  Firefighters shouldn’t be going to the grocery store; they should be at the fire station.  Police officers need to stop hunting and killing innocent people.  There’s the ever-famous, “I pay your salary!”    And when one is injured or dies in the line of duty, we hear, “that’s what they signed up for.”  We could go on and on.  And to make matters worse, the government officials we work for will often take the side of the complaining public instead of standing by the public safety employees.

And we can’t end the discussion of the negative aspects of this culture without talking about some of the psychological realities, which include things like:

  • Personnel are taught to compartmentalize their experiences and to suppress their emotions.  Our research tells us that about 91% of first responders agree that the things they see on the job affect them emotionally, yet they don’t seek help in dealing with those emotions
  • Their sense of personal bravado, their self-confidence, and the sense of comradery within the culture reinforces what they have learned to do; hence, they continue to pack more trash into the trash can instead of emptying it when they need to.
  • We hear conflicting statements like: “We don’t need this stress stuff.”  “I just go home and have a drink and forget about it.”  “Suck it up, buttercup.”  “There must be something wrong with me.”  “I can take care of myself.”

This is Part 2 of a series of articles on Confronting the Issue of Suicide and we encourage you to visit again for more installments in this series. Meanwhile, if you are struggling with the stresses of the job or of life in general and are looking for some resources for help, please reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org and one of our peer support specialists will be happy to help. If you are in crisis now and need immediate help, please text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor 24/7/365 – always free, always confidential.

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Answering the “Big Question”

Just how many law enforcement suicides are there each year?  That’s the “big question,” and the answer is that no one knows for sure.  There are a number of organizations that have been trying to track the numbers of both active and retired officers for some time.  I have no intention of saying anything disparaging here, but let me name of few of the organizations that I’m talking about (and you will have heard of most of these):

  • Blue H.E.L.P.
  • Badge of Life
  • The Ruderman Family Foundation
  • The National Law Enforcement Suicide Mortality Database

The one thing that these organizations have in common is that they have basically nothing in common.  They don’t have the same number of suicides that have been tracked, they don’t have the same method of validating the information they receive, some are adamant that law enforcement suicides should always be treated as a line of duty death while others do not support that idea, and so on. 

            So, the answer to the question as to how many law enforcement suicides are there every year is that we don’t have an accurate number, and in my mind, there is little hope that we will ever have an accurate number.  But I’ll have more to say about that as the article continues.

            Meanwhile, there is information available that I believe still helps us understand the severity of the problem of suicide in law enforcement.  We did a survey through Humanizing the Badge asking police officers about the topic of suicide, and here is what we found from the 3,892 responses we received:

  • 41% said they would consider suicide as an option if they were to find themselves in one or more of the following circumstances:
  • Loss of a spouse, life partner, or child as a result of death
  • Loss of a spouse, life partner, or child as a result of divorce or separation
  • Recent diagnosis of a major/terminal illness
  • Feeling responsible for the death of a coworker
  • Killing someone accidentally or out of anger
  • Feeling isolated or alone
  • Being accused of sexual misconduct
  • Fear of losing their job due to being convicted of a crime or facing incarceration
  • Fear of losing their job due to receiving a mental health diagnosis
  • 43% said they had personally known another officer or former officer who had died by suicide
  • 78% said they were personally aware of another department or agency that had lost an officer or former officer to suicide

Other numbers that we know, for example, is that back around 2015-2016 when the suicide rate in the general population was around 12 per 100,000 the Department of Justice released the results of a study that showed the suicide rate in law enforcement to be about 18 per 100,000 and another study in 2017 showing that the rate of suicide in Chicago PD was about 60% greater than the average of law enforcement agencies across the country for a rate of about 29 per 100,000.  The number of suicides in NYPD in 2019 translates to a rate for them of about 30 per 100,000.

Is there any doubt that suicide in law enforcement is a problem?  Of course not.  Even if we don’t know the exact numbers from across the country, the numbers that we do know are (or should be) enough to cause us to want to take action and to do better.

Now, here’s the thing that had given me hope that we might actually have accurate numbers to report one day: The Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection Act.  This Act passed on June 16, 2020, and here are the basic things you need to know about it:

  • It requires the Attorney General, through the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to establish the Law Enforcement Officers Suicide Data Collection Program within one year of the passage of the Act
  • It requires the Attorney General, through the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to deliver a report to Congress detailing the information that is collected through that data collection program beginning two years after the passage of the Act.
  • The only problem is that, while the Act requires the program to be established, the Act also says that this is a program “. . . under which law enforcement agencies may submit to the Director information on suicides and attempted suicides within such law enforcement agencies . . .”

The FBI has a similar data collection program for collecting data on the number of officers each year who are assaulted, injured, and killed in the line of duty.  There are almost 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, and yet fewer than 10,000 of them reported information to that data collection program last year.  Hence, I no longer have hope that we will ever have accurate numbers of the law enforcement suicides of both active and retired personnel that take place each year, simply because if agencies aren’t absolutely required to report the information, there is probably only around a 50% chance that they will.

Still, people feel like they have to be able to report a number.  During his training programs, Lt. Col. (Ret.) Dave Grossman says that it is his belief that between 200 and 450 active police officers die by suicide each year.  That’s quite a wide range of numbers, and he may very well be right, but that’s like going to the gun range to qualify and only having to hit the proverbial “broad side of a barn” in order to pass!  The only thing I’m fairly comfortable saying when it comes to the numbers is that, in my opinion, we lose more officers to suicide each year than the number of officers who are feloniously killed in the line of duty.

This is Part 1 of a series of articles on Confronting the Issue of Suicide and we encourage you to visit again for more installments in this series. Meanwhile, if you are struggling with the stresses of the job or of life in general and are looking for some resources for help, please reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org and one of our peer support specialists will be happy to help. If you are in crisis now and need immediate help, please text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor 24/7/365 – always free, always confidential.

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Today – My Social & Emotional Needs

What are you planning to do today to take care of your social and emotional needs?

There is a social and emotional dimension of our lives that must be replenished and renewed frequently.  Our emotional lives are greatly enriched by the social connections and relationships that we have developed with other people.  So make it a point to have regular interaction with the people you care about, and those who you know care about you.  That sense of belonging, that sense of relationship is what is necessary in order for us to feel emotionally satisfied.  Contentment – that’s a good word.  You can find a lot of contentment in healthy, loving, lasting relationships and that’s good for your emotional stability.  Be intentional about staying refreshed in that area.

According to John’s Hopkins University research, the most important factor in human resilience is social support.  Are you staying engaged with people?  Are you maintaining a healthy emotional balance in your life?  For your sake and the sake of those you care about, pay attention to this every day!

If you’d like to chat with one of our peer supporters who can help you with this and other stress management approaches, please send a message to m.me/callforbackup.org and we’d be happy to make that happen. 

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Stress Affects Your Mind

Calming Your Mind and Lowering Your Stress Levels

More often than not, we tend to focus on too many things every day, leading to confusion, anxiety, and annoyance. This stress can be hard on the mind and body, but the good news is that you can lower your stress levels and calm your mind, helping yourself to feel better each day.

In fact, you can overcome these issues with a few simple techniques!

First, acknowledge that you must take time for yourself. Being all things to all people isn’t realistic, and neither is doing everything and solving all problems or concerns in one day. No one should expect that of you! If they do, you must recognize that it’s not healthy, and you must do what’s right and best for you. Your health and happiness could depend on it.

Ways to Calm Your Mind

Meditation and prayer are two of the biggest ways to calm a restless mind, but they aren’t the only things you can do. There are many other choices to help you feel better and live a stress-free life. You might also consider:

  • Volunteering or focusing on helping others
  • Exercising
  • Listening to music
  • Using your mind for joyous pursuits that interest you
  • Playing with children or pets

Everyone has different things they enjoy in life, and you should find yours and practice them when you start to feel stressed or your thoughts try to run away from you. Avoid letting your thoughts talk you out of your dreams. Your dreams are yours; embrace them!

Being busy is not the problem when it comes to your mind. Being busy with things that aggravate you and make you feel down is the problem. Instead of dwelling on things that upset you, deal with them, let them go, and move on to things that you enjoy. You can do this with your thoughts, just like you would with a physical task in the workplace or at home.

Lower Your Stress Levels Each Day

Stress begins in your mind as thoughts, but it can manifest itself physically. You may feel tense, anxious, uneasy, angry, or have aches and pains you can’t really find a cause for. If stress continues all the time and becomes chronic, your health could be compromised.

You can let stress go and feel good every day.

Try these strategies to lower your stress:

  1. Focus on what matters to you. What’s important in your life? Be proactive about your goals and priorities. When you’re working toward something that you want, it makes you feel good about yourself and your future.
  2. Find both physical and mental ways to release your stress. Releasing your stress every day keeps it from building up inside you. Make the conscious choice to start each day fresh, without the stress from the day before. What relaxes you? Music? Hobbies? Spending time with your family? Enjoy a healthy dose of relaxation every day. Get as much exercise as possible. Exercise refreshes your body with a surge of oxygen and releases endorphins, the “feel good” hormone. Even if there’s no time for an exercise session, take the stairs instead of the elevator, park far away from the building so you can walk, and play with your kids or pets.
  3. Practice these strategies consistently. Work on releasing your stress every day, even on days when you don’t feel as much stress, so it won’t be a struggle when you really need it. When you’re feeling good, it’s natural to forget about letting stress go, but it’s important to avoid getting complacent.

Keep practicing and improving, even when you feel great!

Whichever techniques you choose to calm your mind and lower your levels of stress, ensure it’s the right fit for you and your lifestyle. Only you know what you really need and what makes you feel safe and at peace.

If you practice this peacefulness each day, it won’t be long before you start to feel calmer, even in situations where you would have previously been over the edge. Your thoughts will be clearer, instead of jumbled and racing. Physically, you’ll feel stronger, too, because your body will be free from the affliction of stress and anxiety.

If you’d like to chat with one of our peer support specialists about how to deal with your stress rather than letting your stress control you, just send a message to m.me/callforbackup.org and we’d be happy to connect with you.

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Today – My Mental Needs

What are you planning to do today to take care of your mental needs?

What about our mental dimension?  Whatever your level of formal education, you should always consider yourself a lifelong learner.  You may have traded the classroom for a uniform, but to keep your mind sharp you must be constantly exploring, constantly honing and expanding your understanding of the world around you and regularly discovering how your experiences and what you already know may contribute to new learning and constant growth.  Yes, you should attend every training program that you can possibly attend, and you should watch training videos on topics related to your work.  But beyond that, challenge yourself to study and learn something new, something outside the realm of “normal” for you.  Reading good books on a variety of topics, listen to podcasts by a number of different speakers, have conversations with people whose life experience is different from your own.  Continue to develop your mind and stay sharp.

You can learn something new every day if you stay curious and engaged.  Maybe you will find some of these suggestions helpful in keeping your mind and intellect sharp, or maybe there are specific things you know will work for you.  The key is to ask yourself whether you both know what to do, and whether you are actually doing it!

If you’d like to chat with one of our peer supporters who can help you with this and other stress management approaches, please send a message to m.me/callforbackup.org and we’d be happy to make that happen. 

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Stress Affects Your Body

Are you constantly feeling stressed?  Stress is something we all encounter on a regular basis, but when it starts to have a negative effect on your body and mind, it means you are distressed

What many people don’t know is that stress is a state of being that negatively impacts the body. In fact, stress has a bigger impact on our bodies than most of us realize or care to acknowledge.

Facts About Stress and Your Body

There are some downright scary facts about the toll that stress takes on the body.  When you look at these facts it is hard to deny that we all need to learn how to manage our stress more effectively.  Some of these facts include:

  • More than 40% of all adults have health problems related to stress
  • Up to 90% of all doctor visits are stress-related
  • About 80% of workers are at least a little stressed in the workplace
  • Stress is known to cost American businesses more than $300 billion each year

Seven Ways in Which Your Body is Affected By Stress

There are two kinds of stress. The “good” stress is called eustress, but we generally only hear about the “bad” stress known as chronic stress or distress.

Chronic stress gradually affects your health at first; in fact, you may not even notice the symptoms at all! And if the stress is not managed, the symptoms will get worse, and its effects may even be irreversible.

Seven ways in which stress may manifest itself in your body are:

  1. Depression.  When you are stressed out, it is very common for people to become depressed.  There are only so many chemicals in the brain to help a person deal with stress, and when they are used up, they’re used up.  This can lead to a person becoming profoundly depressed in what seems like a relatively short period of time.
  1. Anxiety.  Those who are stressed are likely to deal with uncontrollable levels of anxiety.  Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand, and this can cause many different changes in the physiological functioning of the body.
  1. Heart disease.  Stress is very closely linked to heart attacks and death associated with cardiovascular disease.  When stress is not managed, the body breaks down quickly and the heart is often profoundly impacted.
  1. Diabetes.  Type 2 diabetes is one of the fastest growing epidemics in the world and both mental and physical stress can cause rapid fluctuations in blood sugar levels. The long-term effects associated with this include heart disease, blindness, liver problems, kidney disease, and more.
  1. Hair loss.  We often tease our friends and family when they begin to lose hair, but this can be a symptom of unmanaged stress.  If your hair is falling out prematurely don’t blame genetics; look closely at how you are dealing with the stress in your life and see if there are things you can do to control it more effectively.
  1. Obesity. We often cope with stress by consuming unhealthy, fattening foods.  Plus, stress prohibits the control of necessary chemicals that are needed to break down fat, which can lead to obesity.
  1. Sexual dysfunction.  Stress is one of the most common reasons associated with impotence in men.

As you can see, stress can affect your health in many ways. This is by no means an all-inclusive list of how stress affects your body and health.  You may also suffer from hyperthyroidism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, tooth and gum disease, ulcers, and even cancer. Stress is serious stuff! This is all the more reason to start actively managing your stress today.

If you’d like to chat with one of our peer support specialists about how to better manage the stressors that you are experiencing, just send us a message a m.me/callforbackup.org and we will be glad to connect with you.

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Today – My Spiritual Needs

What are you planning to do today to take care of your spiritual needs?

We all should spend some time renewing ourselves in our spiritual dimension.  Now when I say spiritual, I don’t necessarily mean “religious,” although that is how some people choose to express their spiritual nature.  There are many factors that contribute to our spiritual selves which ultimately encompasses how we view the world, how we make sense of the world around us, or what guides us and gives meaning to our existence.  Your spiritual dimension is at the heart of your value system, your worldview, whatever it takes to uplift you and inspire you.  Whether that is listening to or playing music, reading classic literature, spending time in meditation or prayer, attending a gathering of likeminded people or studying quietly on your own – whatever does it for you, make sure you are replenishing yourself regularly in that area.

Do any of these suggestions make sense for you?  Are there other approaches you take to renewing your spiritual self that you’ve found helpful?  Either way, make sure you are staying disciplined to do something for yourself spiritually on a daily basis.

If you’d like to chat with one of our peer supporters who can help you with this and other stress management approaches, please send a message to m.me/callforbackup.org and we’d be happy to make that happen. 

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Today – My Physical Needs

What are you planning to do today to take care of your physical needs?

One of the first and most basic elements of resilience is the care of our physical being.  Many of us don’t treat our body well, whether it’s through the kinds of food and beverages we put in it, to the care we take to avoid sickness and disease, to the shape we allow ourselves to get in because we don’t exercise the way we should.  A reasonable plan for taking care of ourselves physically would include about 30 minutes of moderate exercise on a daily basis.  Spending that 30 minutes to renew yourself physically has the potential to improve the quality of the rest of your day.  It will enhance your capacity to work, and to adapt, and to enjoy the time you spend on other things.  So set a reasonable standard for yourself in the area of staying fit physically and do your best to make that happen every day.

These are just some simple suggestions to help you get started, of course.  Take some time to discover the approach that’s right for you, but make sure you are doing something each day to promote your physical health.  Your body is the vessel that will carry you through your entire life’s journey, so you must be determined to treat it well!

If you’d like to chat with one of our peer supporters who can help you with this and other stress management approaches, please send a message to m.me/callforbackup.org and we’d be happy to make that happen. 

What Can I Do to Prevent Suicide? Part 3

The 3 “Rs” of Suicide Prevention – Part 3

As we said in the beginning, suicide is a serious mental health problem that ultimately must be addressed by mental health professionals.  But you have encountered someone you care about that has been considering suicide as an option.  You have recognized the risk factors, warning signs, and possible trigger events.  You have responded by asking the right questions and leading them through considering the consequences.  Now it’s time to make sure they get the appropriate type of help.

Even if the risk of imminent suicide is very low, never just end a conversation with a suicidal person in the hopes that he or she will not make an attempt to complete the suicide.  Before you conclude, you must get agreement that no attempt will be made, and that the person is able to identify by name who he or she will call if the suicidal thoughts become too intense to control. 

If the risk of imminent suicide is moderate to high, then remember that the third of the 3 “Rs” is refer.  A number of things must be considered in this part of the process, including:

Anticipating barriers (i.e., excuses):

  • Hesitation due to the stigma of seeking help for mental wellness
  • Not wanting to be seen as “weak” by family, friends, coworkers
  • Not understanding the role of mental health professionals
  • Being concerned about the cost of care
  • They’re afraid of losing their job

Help the person identify a local mental health professional that can be contacted as a resource if the risk of suicide is at anything but the lowest level.  That resource may be the EAP contracted by the department or city, someone listed in the network of providers by their health insurance company, or it may be someone from a directory of professionals in the area.

Knowing referral sources for any type of underlying problem:

  • Mental health
  • Spiritual care
  • Disaster assistance
  • Grief support
  • Legal issues
  • Family counseling

Referring someone to a competent mental health professional is important, but it is also important to help them get access to other types of care when indicated, depending on the underlying issue that may have contributed to their sense of helplessness and hopelessness. 

Following up after the referral:

  • It shows that you still care about their well-being
  • It helps ensure they actually followed through on the referral source you recommended
  • It may open up opportunities to share more information with them about additional resources, if indicated

Please know that this is NOT a complete course in suicide prevention and intervention.  It is, however, a few simple steps for caring people to keep in mind when they encounter someone who, for whatever reason, has begun to consider suicide as an option.  Your willingness to help someone you care about, and knowing how to go about it, may just save someone’s life one day.

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts yourself, or you are concerned about a loved one, reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org and one of our peer specialists can point you in the right direction for help.

What Can I Do to Prevent Suicide? Part 2

The 3 “Rs” of Suicide Prevention – Part 2

Someone you care about is showing signs that they may be at greater risk for considering suicide as an option to end the pain they’re going through.  You’ve seen the warning signs, and you’re familiar with a recent event that may be triggering those kinds of thoughts.  Perhaps they are making statements that you find very concerning.  You want to help – but how?

The second of the 3 “Rs” is Respond.  You should take action as soon as possible to help this person you care about, and here are some steps to take so that response can be effective: 

You must clarify the presence of suicidal intention by asking the right questions.  What questions?

  • Are you thinking of killing yourself? Be blunt.  Use the word “kill.”
  • How long have you been thinking about killing yourself?
  • Do you have a plan to kill yourself? Get specific information about the plan.
  • Do you have the means to carry out the plan? Remember, every police officer has this.

By asking the right questions and getting to the heart of the matter, you may find this person doesn’t really want to die, but they do want to change how they are presently living their lives.  In most cases, confronting the issues head on instead of waiting until it’s too late is exactly what that person needs.  And if you start this process by showing that you care about this person, then you must be willing to stick with it until you can get them to the appropriate kind of help.

You must contract that intention by using the “principle of unintended consequences.”

  • Who is going to find your body and clean up the mess? That may be something the individual has actually never given any thought to.
  • Your family may be left with no benefits and no life insurance if you die by suicide.
  • Is there anything or anyone to stop you? There may be religious beliefs, thoughts about people left behind like spouse, children, even pets.

Many people who find themselves in a state of distress and despair are not thinking clearly.  The emotional part of the brain has taken over, and the logical part of the brain that controls decision-making and behavioral impulses becomes inhibited.  Forcing a person to consider the difficult and lasting consequences of their impending decision may be exactly what they need in the moment, which allows you the necessary time to get them to the kind of help they need.

A person is perhaps less likely to attempt suicide in the presence of another person, so getting someone else involved is also a logical step to take.  Consider the level of suicide risk in making this determination.  This individual may be a family member, especially if the suicidal person simply needs to talk through his or her issues with someone close.  In the case of law enforcement officers, the local department may have peer support people or a chaplain who can respond and assume control of the intervention.  Remember, if a suicide attempt is imminent, someone needs to be there to get the suicidal person on the line with the suicide prevention hotline or get them to the nearest emergency room for evaluation.

In Part 3, we will talk about how to go about referring a suicidal individual to the appropriate level of care safely, quickly, and effectively.

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts yourself, or you are concerned about a loved one, reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org and one of our peer specialists can point you in the right direction for help.

What Can I Do to Prevent Suicide? Part 1

The 3 “Rs” of Suicide Prevention – Part 1

While suicide is a serious mental health problem that ultimately needs to be addressed by mental health professionals, it is not likely that a mental health professional is going to be the first one to come in contact with a person who is considering suicide.  You are.  But would you know what to do?  One of the most common laments of family members and colleagues of someone who completes a suicide is that they “should have seen it coming,” and “I wish I could have helped.”  We’re publishing this brief series called “The 3 ‘Rs’ of Suicide Prevention” for just that reason.  Here are some essential things to know so that you may be more effective in helping someone with suicidal thoughts.

The first of the 3 “Rs” is Recognize.  You should be able to recognize the risk factors, warning signs, and possible trigger events that often lead people to consider suicide as an option for ending their pain.  Here are a few:

Risk factors:

  • Recent diagnosis of a mood disorder such as depression or anxiety
  • Family history of some form of mental illness
  • Family history of suicide (and in the emergency services world, fellow first responders count as family!)

If the individual expresses a great deal of anger or describes aggressive behaviors, has become isolated or withdrawn or has had a recent psychiatric hospital stay, that is an indication of a greater risk.  If the individual describes himself or herself as being a burden to others, feels trapped, or believes there is no reason to live, there is an increased risk of a suicide attempt.

Warning signs:

  • Helplessness: “I am feeling this pain, and I can’t make it go away.”
  • Hopelessness: “No matter what I’ve tried, or who has tried to help me, I don’t believe tomorrow is going to be any better than today.”
  • Worthlessness: “I used to feel like my life mattered, and what I did mattered.  I just don’t feel that way anymore.”

Has this person been talking or writing about death and/or suicide recently?  Even if a person makes vague statements about suicide, remember it is a myth that those who talk about suicide never actually do it, and this is a warning sign.  What about changes in personality, or poor performance at work?  Other common warning signs include getting affairs in order by writing a will, giving possessions away, calling someone “out of the blue,” seemingly to say goodbye.  And a very important warning sign is that the person has suddenly gone from very sad to suddenly very content and peaceful.  This is usually an indication that the decision has been made.

Possible trigger events:

  • Recent death of a spouse or child
  • Recent divorce, separation, child custody issues
  • Recent diagnosis of a serious medical condition or even terminal illness

If something has happened recently that has caused this individual to feel shame, guilt, or humiliation, these may trigger an increase in suicidal thoughts.  Also, look for signs of recent legal or financial problems as this will often precipitate thoughts of suicide as a means to escape the consequences of such things. 

In Part 2, we will talk about how to respond to someone who is expressing the intention to die by suicide.

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts yourself, or you are concerned about a loved one, reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org and one of our peer specialists can point you in the right direction for help.