What doesn’t kill you . . . is still killing you.

You’ve heard the old expression, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” right? And if that fills your head with the music from the Kelly Clarkson song, I’m sorry. As an officer, you may have told yourself that because you survived a close call on a difficult arrest you’re stronger, or that because you went home and the bad guy didn’t after an OIS you’re stronger, or because you haven’t buckled under the pressure of the job like others have you must be stronger. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a nice sentiment, but it’s not altogether true. It’s still killing you . . . just more slowly.

Based on longstanding research, we already know that people under stress tend to consume too much caffeine, have problems with alcohol, have poor spending habits, don’t sleep well, and eat an unhealthy diet. This has resulted in what have been termed the “diseases of civilization” like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Chronic stress has been linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.

It’s the suicide link that concerns me, and should concern everyone in law enforcement. Research shows that people diagnosed with stress response syndrome (often the result of chronic stress) were 19 times more likely to complete a suicide than individuals without that previous diagnosis. For the past 5 years, at least 12 to 15 active police officers each month have died by their own hand, and that can likely be attributed to the effects of chronic stress or some trigger event that has resulted in those officers suffering from stress response syndrome.

Where can help be found? According to the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, studies show that first responders are often resistant to seeking mental health treatment, and our own research at Humanizing the Badge reveals that the greatest barrier to individuals reaching out for help is the stigma associated with the need to talk to someone about what they’re experiencing. This is where effective peer support programs come in. Peer support has emerged as the virtual “standard of care” for first responders, and has proven to have a greater rate of compliance and fewer incidences of withdrawal from care as compared to traditional mental health approaches.

Our innovative #CallForBackup Campaign for Suicide Awareness and Prevention is designed to teach first responders how to help themselves, and how to help each other. The goal is to teach people the skills necessary, in an environment of trust and mutual support, to help each other through the daily struggles of the job, prevent the tremendous buildup of chronic stress, but to know when a referral is necessary in the best interests of the health of their team member.

If you’d like more information about this training program, or if you are struggling and just need to check in with someone, please send a message to our Facebook page at m.me/callforbackup.org/.  If you are having suicidal thoughts and are in immediate crisis, please text BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor.  All assistance is free, confidential, and is available around the clock.

Helping Someone with Suicidal Thoughts

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.”  Here are some essential things to know so that you may be more effective in helping someone with suicidal thoughts.

Be familiar with acute risk factors.  There is a long list of acute risk factors, including recently divorced or separated, recent excessive or increased substance abuse, and recent suicide attempts or other kinds of self-harming behaviors.  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.

Listen for information about possible recent trigger events.  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, especially if the individual believes that a life insurance payout will solve the problem for the survivors.  Also, do not ignore any mention of a recent exposure to suicide – a friend or family member, or even another police officer that has been reported in the media.  This is a significant trigger event.

Know the most common warning signs.  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.

Be willing to ask the tough questions without hesitation.  Here is a list of those tough questions that must be asked:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Is there anything or anyone to stop you? There may be religious beliefs, thoughts about people left behind like spouse, children, even pets.

Get someone else involved.  A person is perhaps less likely to attempt suicide in the presence of another person, so getting someone else involved is 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.

Get agreement that the individual will seek professional help if indicated.  First, 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.  And finally, 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, or it may be someone from a directory of professionals in the area.

If you are reading this, and you are struggling with suicidal thoughts yourself, don’t try to walk that path alone – call for backup.  Reach out to us by sending a message to m.me/callforbackup.org/.  IF YOU ARE IN CRISIS NOW, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1(800) 273-TALK (8255).

How Is Your Stress Fitness?

The buildup of chronic stress in the lives of first responders can exact a very heavy toll – mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. These 12 tips can offer some strategies to improve your stress fitness and help make you more resistant to the effects of stress, and more resilient when a major stressful event occurs. Here you go:

  1. Exercise regularly. Stay active, and follow a regular exercise program each week. Your physical fitness will go a long way toward building up your stress fitness as well.
  2. Eat right. Americans are beset by “the diseases of civilization” – heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Our diet has a lot to do with that, and if you eat balanced, healthy meals, you are setting yourself up to be more resistant to stress.
  3. Avoid smoking. About 16-17% of first responders smoke cigarettes. The physical effects of smoking on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems make it much harder to combat the effects of stress on those same systems. If you smoke, seek help to quit.
  4. Avoid excessive alcohol and caffeine. Enjoying an adult beverage in moderation and having a limited number of caffeinated beverages a day may not be harmful, but excessive consumption of either will lessen your resistance to stress.
  5. Relax. Take regular breaks during the day, and take regular days off to relax. The old “all work and no play” adage really is true. Learn and practice some techniques to initiate the body’s natural relaxation response.
  6. Let go of the past. People often carry hurts from the past along with them. Instead, let go of those things and set your mind on the promise of the future.
  7. Have faith. Our research shows that individuals who actively practice some type of faith are significantly less likely to suffer from the effects of stress. Find and engage in a spiritual practice that helps bring you a sense of peace.
  8. Set goals. Whether it is short-term or long-term goals, being future-oriented makes a difference when it comes to responding to the effects of stress.
  9. Express yourself appropriately. Learn positive ways to express your feelings. Stress often causes us to behave in ways that hurt others, so expressing ourselves appropriately is key to handling difficult situations and people.
  10. Strengthen your primary relationship. Whether it is a spouse or other partner, you should place a high value on that relationship and always take steps to keep improving it.
  11. Find purpose. Working as a first responder is hard, but you sought out that work because you believed there was a great purpose behind it. If you have lost it, focus on finding it again.
  12. Network. Make sure you are connected to a close network of family and friends who will support you emotionally and love you unconditionally.

If you are struggling under the unique pressures of the job, and just need someone to chat with, please reach out by sending a message to m.me/callforbackup.org/ or email me at david@humanizingthebadge.com.  You don’t have to walk a difficult path alone . . . and we are here for family members of first responders, too!