POLICE SUICIDE -- JUST A “BAD CHOICE?”
We must recognize that posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is
a physical, as well as an emotional injury.
Andy O’Hara, Founder,
Badge of Life Mental Health for Police Officers
Richard L. Levenson, Jr., Psy.D., CTS, Vice Chairman, Badge of
Ron Clark, RN, MS, Chairman, Badge of Life
"Suicide is a whispered word,
inappropriate for polite company. Family and friends often pretend they do not hear the word's dread sound even when it is
uttered. For suicide is a taboo subject that stigmatizes not only the victim but the survivors as well." –Earl Grollman
It was in 1984 that Phil Donahue coined the unfortunate phrase, “Suicide is just a permanent solution
to a temporary problem.” Joining other empty-minded quotes about suicide
as “cowardly,” “angry” and “selfish,” Donahue’s comment would show up in every power
point, lecture and conversation about suicide. It would also set the understanding of mental illness and suicide
A “solution,” permanent or otherwise, is defined as “finding a specific answer
to or way of answering a problem.” Donahue was, therefore, suggesting
that a suicide victim is rational enough to examine the problem (PTSD and depression), weigh the options (to live or not live),
identify the specific answer (suicide) and put it into play. Suicide, in the
mind of the uneducated, is little more than a simple choice, one made on the veranda on a summer day with a glass of lemonade.Sadly, this is the way society needs to think of suicide—as “a choice.” We don’t want to think of suicide being caused by the
confusion, pain and desperation of a mental disorder. That would disempower us and force us to look deeper. If it was beyond the victim’s control, we could no longer blame them.
So, it’s all about “bad choices.” The victim
of suicide was in complete control, made a bad decision, kind of like going right or left at the intersection, and made the
This is how stigma begins—by shaming the victim for “screwing it up” and “making
the wrong decision.” If only we had been sitting on that porch, sipping
lemonade with them when they were going through the “plusses and minuses” of committing suicide, we might have
been able to slip a bit of sound logic into the rational discussion. But the
victim didn’t invite us, damn them—another “bad choice!”
Once they are dead, we shun the family as though they pulled the trigger.
No suicide note in the world will save them from our judgment—we cast them out, children included, from the police
When we hold our memorials, we will say, “It was not how they died that made them heroes, it was how
they lived.” But inside, we know we’re lying. Of course it’s about the way they died. They blew it, we say. They allowed the psychological trauma that hit them during their heroic events to affect them—that’s
not allowed to happen, say police chiefs. Not only did they come out of it with
PTSD, it drove them to suicide. And we don’t want to hear that. Many a
hero lies dead and unrecognized because we failed to understand the terrible wound that killed them.
Let’s look more closely at this issue of suicide, the myth of choice, and our perception of police
suicides. Are we in the 21st century—or still in the Middle Ages?
POLICE SUICIDES: Current studies show there are 125 - 150 suicides each year in the United States, or more than ten
per month (NSOPS, O'Hara, Violanti). Unfortunately, police departments refuse
to accept the possibility that law enforcement work can lead to suicide.
STRESS DISORDER (PTSD): Police officers have been long recognized as vulnerable to PTSD because of the long-term, violent, toxic environment
in which they work. In some ways, a cop's work may be even more traumatic than
that of a soldier sent into a war zone, says clinical director Beverly Anderson. "The police officer's job, over many years, exposes and reexposes
them to traumatic events that would make anybody recoil in horror." Nonetheless,
amazingly, there are some states that refuse to recognize the existence of PTSD in police work.
In states that do recognize PTSD, challenges remain. Departments
that accept and validate an injury report for PTSD will then refuse to recognize the job relatedness of suicide by that same
officer a week later, no matter how closely linked it is to the same traumatic incident on the job.
Three years of tracking rarely reveals a suicide that is been recognized as “line of duty,”
even though several highly publicized cases are clearly such.
An abundance of literature is available about the impact a traumatic incident has on the brain,
thus leading to PTSD. Changes occur, both physically and chemically, that are major and often long-lasting.
To date, there is no one medication available to treat PTSD, making control of the symptoms a confusing
and sometimes life-long battle.
“LINE OF DUTY” ISSUE: There is widespread confusion (and ignorance) about whether or not it is possible to be injured, both psychologically
and physically, in performing the police job and, if so, that such an injury (the classic example being posttraumatic stress
disorder) can lead to suicide. Much of this has to do with a lack of understanding
of the nature of PTSD itself. There are several key points to remember:
- PTSD is clearly defined as an injury. It is not genetic. It is not a disease. It is the one and only psychiatric disorder
in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) that is caused by an external
source. It is not “caught,” and it is not the fault of the victim.
3. PTSD is a physical injury to the brain—it
is just as physical as a concussion and it is real.
- Trauma: The
medical definition for “trauma,” which includes “injury,” is “Any injury, whether physically
or emotionally inflicted.” Trauma" has both a medical and a psychiatric definition. Medically, "trauma" refers
to a serious or critical bodily injury, wound, or shock. This definition is often associated with trauma medicine
practiced in emergency rooms and represents a popular view of the term. In psychiatry, "trauma" has assumed a different meaning
and refers to an experience that is emotionally painful, distressful, or shocking, which often results in lasting mental and
- There are clear, measureable physical changes that immediately begin taking place to the hippocampus, which controls learning, memory, stress and our emotional responses to fear. The hippocampus actually decreases in mass and begins to atrophy.
b. The amygdala, the “fear center” of the brain, becomes overactive.
- “Those who have PTSD have abnormal levels of
stress hormones. Studies show that individuals with PTSD have lower levels of cortisol than those who do not have PTSD and
higher than average levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine. The above three mentioned hormones are responsible for creating
the "flight or fight" response to stress. In turn, this means that the person with PTSD lives in constant "flight or fight"
- Researchers believe that the medial prefrontal cortex, which regulates
emotional and fear responses, becomes dysfunctional.
- Simply put, PTSD alters levels of numerous stress
related chemicals and hormones that would otherwise maintain emotional and decision-making balances in the brain. This can easily trigger depression, commonly raising the likelihood of suicide.
- Richard Levenson, Psy.D., who specializes in anxiety
and depressive disorders, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the effects of medical/physical conditions on psychological
health and well-being. points out that “suicide with
many police officers is a function of a severe PTSD and depression. While this may be obvious to us, it is not to all.
We know that biological changes take place in the brain because medication reverses those changes, at least to some extent,
as it alleviates depression. However, severe depression can be hidden from others, and just because a department command doesn’t
see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
- Memory, concentration and decision-making are impaired,
having a clear impact on the individual’s ability to make a sound "decision" about something like suicide.
It is understandably difficult for a “warrior culture” like law enforcement to accept that something
“in the mind” could be an injury. The prevailing thought is that
the PTSD victim should simply realize he is “in trouble,” see a counselor, take medications and “get better.” One, two and three. Would we ask the
same of an officer who has been beaten on the head by a suspect with a hammer? Of
course not. We can see the telltale signs of a concussion in the officer’s
eyes and gait and perhaps see blood. We will send him to the hospital and pray
for his survival. If he dies, no matter how much later, we will honor him and
place his name on a memorial wall as a hero.
If, however, that same officer makes a complete recovery from the concussive injuries but is psychologically
traumatized by the incident and commits suicide a few months later, we will bury him secretly without honors, refusing to
recognize the injury that killed him, and we will cast away his family in disgrace.
Not even his assailant is blamed for his death—this is suicide, and the victim is at fault.
What is confusing about PTSD is that the victim has no visible scar, does not limp and has no other visual
signs of injury. The victim acts and talks quite “normally.” This is not a gauge of how they are feeling inside with the injury, however, or the
nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety attacks and depression they are experiencing. Still,
progress is being made to recognize the role that stress and, more importantly, trauma can play in police suicides. Take for example:
In 2010, at its conference,
the International Association of Chiefs of Policeemphasized that stress in law enforcement can contribute to police suicide,
even presenting a class on how “how critical incidents and prolonged stress can affect and alter a law enforcement officer.” [italics ours]
issue of “choice” in suicides, John Violanti, PhD, a former NY state trooper and world renowned police mental
health researcher at the University of NY at Buffalo, stated in March, 2011, “Advances in the understanding of the neurobiological mechanisms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suggest
that inhibitory mechanisms that act to minimize distracting stimuli and enhance attentional control may be disrupted in this
disorder. Results suggest that there are disruptions in frontal attentional brain mechanisms in police officers with high
PTSD symptomatology. In short,” Violanti says, “frontal
areas of the brain are responsible for reasoning and making decisions. PTSD impairs this human ability.
‘Rational’ decisions are disrupted.”
PTSD and depression have been recognized
as co-occurrent. “Patients with at least
one major depressive episode who have or have had PTSD were significantly at greater risk of suicide attempts than patients
with a major depressive episode and no PTSD,” says Maria Oquendo, M.D.
Compared to other anxiety disorders,
persons with PTSD are high in risk of anger impulsivity. Lack of impulse control is considered a key contributor to suicide (Brunner and Saddath).
SUMMARY – WE NEED TO RISE FROM THE MIDDLE AGES
The practice of “blaming the victim” in a suicide is an old one, going back to the Middle Ages
and based on a deep, visceral fear of suicide. Behind this fear is a deeply
rooted need to distance oneself from the act by proclaiming it to be shameful and even sinful act, dooming one for eternity
and blackening the family name forever.
We still practice this custom in the 21st century, but in more “sophisticated” ways.
Rather than burning down the victim’s home and family with it, we employ pseudo-scientific platitudes like, “Suicide
is a cowardly act,” or “Suicide is an angry act.”
This is fear at work. We don’t want to believe PTSD,
depression or suicide could happen to us. So we build up our defense like this: “Joe
was my comrade. I thought Joe was a hero.
But Joe committed suicide. Joe was weak and a coward. I am not weak or
a coward like Joe. Therefore I will not commit suicide.”
In spite of what Joe may have done in his life, our personal integrity is threatened by the mere thought
of a police officer (like us) committing suicide. We feel we must distance ourselves completely from anything associated with
it. This includes the spouse and children who, after a few polite telephone
calls, are cast away from the police family as “untouchables.” The
name of the deceased officer, even the heroic deeds that may have driven him to suicide, are erased from memory. He is buried
in near secret and his name is forgotten, never to be seen in a place of honor for the sacrifice he made.
This must end. When an
officer is injured while in the line of duty and dies of his wounds we must honor him--not disgrace him.
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