When an officer dies in the line of duty, communities rally around the surviving family and department, offering support for the grieving and memorializing the ultimate sacrifice of their fallen heroes.
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When an officer takes his own life because he succumbed to the crippling – often untreated – stress and trauma of the job, there is a hushed murmur surrounding the survivors. The “wonder why’s” and “what if’s” circulate as loved ones struggle to come to grips with the loss of their heroes.
Law enforcement suicide statistics are harrowing. The organization Blue Help, which tracks and verifies law enforcement suicides, reported 159 deaths in 2017. That statistic outpaces the number of officers who died in the line of duty in 2017 – 134 fatalities – and is more than triple those who died by gunfire – 45 fatalities, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
The real tragedy behind these statistics is that they are commonly considered to be inaccurately-low due to underreporting.
On its website, Blue Help indicates that because there is no formal, consistent collection of the data, nor a national database maintained for law enforcement suicide statistics, “Accounting for the suicides that are not reported or ‘hidden’ is difficult because too many people are ashamed to admit their loved one died by suicide.”
What can I do?
Fraternity is deeply ingrained in law enforcement culture. Officers trust each other with their lives and safety, and that bond carries over beyond shiftwork. So when you notice your brother or sister struggling and you’re concerned about suicidal ideation, what can you do?
Kentucky State Police Employee Assistance Program Psychologist Chuck Biebel remembers the disconcerting feeling of not knowing what to do when he was a road unit in San Diego before he received any training in law enforcement mental health, he said.
“People would talk to me about things, and I did not have any idea how to react and respond,” Biebel said. “I didn’t want to say the wrong thing, so I didn’t say anything.”
The first thing Biebel recommends is to be aware of situations in your co-workers’ lives (and how they’re handling them) that may lead to a more serious situation. Officers who have experienced conflict in their relationships, a personal loss such as the death of a loved one, are experiencing financial difficulties or substance abuse are at the highest risk for suicide, Biebel said. Those who are experiencing workplace trouble, such as being subject to an internal affairs investigation, might also exhibit warning signs.
“More complaints from the public is a pretty good indicator of a problem,” Biebel said. “Particularly if you have an officer who has had a great record, who hasn’t had any complaints and starts getting several of them.”
Individuals with suicidal ideations tend to begin withdrawing socially and take more risks. However, these signs may not be obvious. In a 2013 study on police suicide entitled, “National Police Suicide Estimates: Web Surveillance Study III,” researchers noted that of those agencies that lost an officer to suicide, none reported recognizing any warning signs. Of those same officer suicides, 96 percent reportedly, “slipped completely ‘under the radar,’ undergoing noticeable problems or symptoms of distress before taking their lives.”
“The latter is significant and highlights the ability of an officer to maintain a facade, a ‘front,’ before his peers while eroding,” the study continues. “Law enforcement does have its own code of conduct and subculture, and many officers still feel a need to disguise signs of psychological distress for fear of being perceived as ‘soft’ or weak. Additionally, the high percentage of reportedly-missed suicides would imply that officers continue to be far more adept at disguising their intentions than previously expected.”
If the warning signs aren’t obvious, how do you know if someone is considering suicide? Biebel recommends opening lines of intentional conversation. Do you know someone is experiencing personal problems, yet seems to be handling it OK? Ask them about it. Has a fellow officer experienced a number of critical incidents that could cause distress? Ask them how they are coping with the stress.
“One of the biggest variables I see to help prevent suicide is connectedness,” Biebel said. “One of the biggest issues in suicidality is isolation. Anytime you can be inclusive and not only invite people into your circle, but also encourage them to get involved in activities or events that help them connect with other people, that’s a really big one. If you suspect someone is really thinking about suicide, it’s not just about watching them. Encourage them to connect – there is a powerful genetic basis to that.”
In early intervention, officers may not need professional help, but instead, need support and someone to acknowledge their experience and struggle. One way to do that is through the creation of strong peer networks.
In a report published by the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Center for Officer Safety and Wellness – “The Signs Within: Suicide Prevention Education and Awareness” – peer counseling programs are encouraged as a “vital part of agencies’ suicide prevention/resiliency programs.”
“The programs train law enforcement personnel to offer emotional, social and practical support to their fellow officers,” the report states. “Officers who are having a difficult time are often more willing to speak and share with a fellow officer who knows their specific culture and departmental nuances than with an outside mental health professional.”
In Kentucky, at least two formal programs now exist which are establishing growing peer support networks. The Kentucky Post-Critical Incident Seminar and Kentucky Community Crisis Response Board’s Kentucky Law Enforcement Assistance Program each have developed law enforcement peers across the commonwealth who have been trained to support officers in need. The IACP report further encourages individual agencies to seek training to designate qualified peers within the organization who can be a listening ear.
“The peer program should be encouraged to be an active part of the agency, reaching out to agency members after personal stressors such as divorces, family deaths and critical illnesses as well as after shootings and other critical incidents,” the report states. “The success or failure of a peer program often depends on the value the agency’s administration places on the program.”
Even if you are not a trained peer, Biebel offered some tips to officers who are willing to take the first step toward proactively connecting with their co-workers.
“You can never go wrong with reflective listening,” he said. “That’s basically repeating back to people what they’ve said paraphrased. So, if you and I are talking and you tell me your boss has been really mean to you and you’re upset, I want to show you that I’m listening and understand what you’re saying. So I might respond with, ‘Wow, that sounds like it would be really hard to get that kind of criticism from someone you work for,’ just to show people that you hear what they say.”
Don’t try to change the way a person feels. If a co-worker is depressed, instead of arguing with them about whether or not they should feel depressed, Biebel said help them identify some positive things in their lives.
“If someone is telling you how bad their marriage is, or how bad their financial issues are, it’s important to do reflective listening to show you hear what they say and offer them empathy and compassion,” he said. “Then it’s OK to say, ‘Yeah, I totally get that you’re in a tough spot right now, and it sounds really rough. But can you see any positives in your life right now? Help people see that without telling them they’re wrong for feeling that way.
“If I’m really depressed about something, someone telling me I’m wrong to feel that way is not going to help,” Biebel continued.
Do you feel hopeless?
If during the course of your conversation you become concerned about possible suicide ideation, it’s OK to specifically ask if they have considered harming themselves. People are often afraid that bringing up the topic plants the seed for suicidal thoughts, but Biebel said there is no data to support the myth.
“If you suspect they might be suicidal, you don’t have to jump into that with the first question,” he said. “I ask this question all the time – even outside of law enforcement – ‘Have you begun to feel hopeless about your future?” If the person answers yes, then you can ask, ‘Have you ever felt suicidal?’ I have never had anybody be completely offended by that and march out. A lot of times people actually feel relieved that it’s out in the open.”
Both Biebel and the IACP report encourage departments to create a culture that destigmatizes mental health and begins the conversation early about the risks and resources.
“In summary, the results of our data analysis indicate that there are needless and preventable deaths among our law enforcement officers,” the IACP report states. “As departments continue to successfully prepare officers for danger on the street, they should further consider preparing them for the psychological danger of this work.
“Perhaps to some degree we are asking the wrong question,” the report continues. “Suicide rates are important to guide our research, but more importantly is how to determine how to enhance overall mental health in law enforcement and prevent police suicides.”
Employee Checklist for Supervisors
Excerpted from “The Signs Within: Suicide Prevention Education and Awareness”
Produced by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Center for Officer Safety and Wellness
This checklist can serve as a template for identifying employees who are experiencing higher than usual levels of stress on- or off-duty and may be in need of assistance. Supervisory personnel should be aware of their subordinates’ needs and should note these behavioral details over an extended period of time.
If employees show worrying changes to their behavior, supervisors should use this checklist to help them begin a discussion with their employees and should, at the earliest opportunity, seek professional assistance for employees who need it.
Overly tired or exhausted
Reporting for duty while impaired
Mood swings—overly emotional or aggressive
Uncommon use or overuse of annual and/or sick leave
Tardiness to shift
Unusual excuses for absences
Overly aggressive behavior to coworkers as well as the public
Continued risk-taking behavior
Decrease in typical productivity
Lack of concentration in report writing
Lack of attention to details in reports and/or increase in mistakes
Increasingly withdrawn from social activities
Non-participation in agency events and activities
Lack of interest in future projects or operations
Disregard for safety of others
Employee avoidance of peers or supervisors
Borrowing of money from coworkers