Police Suicide - Are We Doing Enough?

It is commonly reported that in the United States a police officer dies in the line of duty every 58 hours.  The 2019 total reached 135 – a 19% decrease from the previous year.  But you’ll almost never see any statistics reported on the “other” line of duty death – police suicide – because there is no national database to keep such a record.  Even though gathering valid and reliable statistics is a significant challenge, most sources will not dispute the fact that the number of suicides of active law enforcement officers has been consistently exceeding the number of those who die in the line of duty every year.

The Topic

Uh-oh . . . we’re not supposed to talk about this!  For better or worse, police officers need to maintain the appearance of “having it all together.”  The sad reality, of course, is that many police officers are not only struggling with the same life stresses that non-officers struggle with, but they are also trying to process the ugly side of human life that they are beset with during every shift.  Depending on the source, you will find that the suicide rate among active duty police officers is as much as 50% greater than the rate in the general population, and that anywhere from 200 to 450 active duty police officers complete suicide every year!  And 85% of them use their service weapon to complete the act.

A common myth about suicide is that it usually occurs without warning.  The truth is that most suicidal people plan their self-destruction in advance and then present clues indicating that they have become suicidal.  Among the many warning signs to watch for:  the individual shows lack of interest and motivation and stops confiding in anyone; is turning more and more toward alcohol or other substances; suffers from frequent injuries or is “accident prone”; has written letters to close friends outlining their wishes “if something were to ever happen”; is no longer concerned about physical appearance.

Another common myth about suicide is that asking people if they are suicidal might plant the idea in their heads.  If you see warning signs like the ones mentioned above, there’s no reason (and perhaps no time) to be subtle.  You should ask the person you are concerned about: “Have you thought about killing yourself?”  If the answer is “yes” or if you believe the individual is being intentionally vague in answering, you should address whether the individual has the “means, motive, and opportunity” to complete the act of suicide.  And offer to stay while encouraging the individual to seek professional help.

What if you have heard an officer jokingly talking about suicide?  Another myth is that if people talk about killing themselves, they won’t really do it.  Talking about suicide (even jokingly) is often a clue or warning about a person’s intention.  Every mention of suicide ought to be taken seriously!

Why are police officers at such a high risk for suicide?  Because of the effects of different kinds of stress associated with the profession:

  • Internal (departmental) stress (poor supervision, lack of communication, etc.)
  • External (community) stress (adversarial relationship between police and community)
  • Critical incident stress (events that overwhelm normal coping mechanisms such as a line of duty death, serious injury of an officer, horrific crime scene, etc.)
  • Cumulative stress (suffered by veteran officers due to an accumulation of unresolved issues)
  • Family stress (officers develop dysfunctional skills to survive the law enforcement profession, and the family suffers stress because of it)

When the effects of these kinds of stress become too much for an officer to bear, he or she may view suicide as the only means of getting relief.  That is why we can legitimately refer to police suicide as the “other” line of duty death.

The Problem

Humanizing the Badge conducted some research back in 2017 to explore the phenomenon of suicide among police officers.  One question on that survey, which had a total of 3,892 responses from police officers across the country, asked essentially why they don’t reach out for help even though they know they need it.  When analyzing those open-ended responses, the most frequently-used word by far was the word stigma in some form.  This is certainly consistent with other research in both the military and emergency services, so it’s not really a surprise at all.  More recent research tells us that 80% of first responders surveyed believe there is a stigma associated with reaching out for help that is perpetuated by their peers, meaning the culture of not seeking help has been ingrained in our officers from generation to generation.

The #2 reason officers don’t ask for help is they believe their department or agency won’t stand by them.  I have far too many stories that I can tell you about officers who have been let down by their department when they admitted they were in need of some help as they struggled with the stresses of the job, or post-traumatic stress after a critical incident.  From administrative leave, to suspension, to suspension pending termination, to outright termination, there are officers whose careers have been ended just because they made an appointment to talk to a therapist about their struggles.  Recent research tells us that 89% of first responders believe there is a stigma associated with reaching out for help that is perpetuated by their department or agency through punitive rather than redemptive policies.

The Solution

A: Address the Issues.  The causes of the stigma associated with seeking help must be addressed.  We definitely know what at least some of those causes are: personnel don’t trust their department or agency to support them, they don’t believe clinicians understand them, and they don’t want to appear weak by asking for help.

Stress-related injuries are just as real as the physical injuries that law enforcement personnel may suffer.  It’s time that they were treated with the same sense of urgency and understanding.  We consistently lose more police officers to suicide than are killed in the line of duty, and we need to acknowledge that this is the inevitable result of having a culture of stigma regarding mental wellness among the ranks.

B: Build Trust.  Trust is critical to the success of relationships.  The point of building trust is for others to believe what you say. Keep in mind, however, that building trust requires not only keeping the promises you make but also not making promises you’re unable to keep.  Keeping your word shows others what you expect from them, and in turn, they’ll be more likely to treat you with respect, developing further trust in the process.

Building trust is a daily commitment. Don’t make the mistake of expecting too much too soon. In order to build trust, first take small steps and take on small commitments and then, as trust grows, you will be more at ease with making and accepting bigger commitments. Put trust in, and you will generally get trust in return.

Peers, of course, have a natural advantage for accelerating the time it takes to establish trust.  In fact, first responders tell us – by a 4 to 1 margin – that they would rather have voluntary participation in an effective peer-to-peer support program than to be forced to have mandatory annual meetings with a mental health professional hired by their department.

C: Change the Culture.  We need to stop shaming and/or punishing individuals who are seeking help.  Some elements of the culture in law enforcement are deeply ingrained and are likely to never change.  That’s okay.  But there are some aspects of that culture that we’ve described earlier that simply must change if we are to break down the walls of stigma that prevent people from getting help when they need it.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has been consistently publishing information and guidelines for the past 5 years, at least, on how departments need to proceed to take better care of the mental wellness needs of their personnel.  Agency leaders need to do a better job of identifying and implementing solutions that will work for their people.

Finally, silence isn’t strength, and asking for help is not a sign of weakness!  Officers need to be brave enough to ask for help when they need it.  And command staff need to understand that it is part of their responsibility to encourage, not punish, that kind of vulnerability.

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