But while recognizing there
is a “problem” and a tragic story behind
each of them, the challenge we have on our hands is finding a SOLUTION to the problem. Certainly,
hiding police suicides from view
does nothing except pretend the problem doesn’t exist.
So what is the solution to the problem of law
enforcement suicides? In this highly
stressful environment, how do we prevent them from happening?
In the past, of course, there
was nothing. The hiding of suicides was rampant in police
departments. Everything was handled in whispers. Often, the squad itself knew nothing of what
had happened. The stigma was powerful,
in hushed funerals and minimal attention given to the families.
It was not unusual, in fact, for spouses to
be blamed for the death. Things
impacts of job stress and work-related trauma were never considered or
discussed. In too many departments,
kind of stigma remains—but progress is being made.
Here, instead of the problems, are
some of today’s solutions to suicide
and a pathway to good mental health in law enforcement.
PEER SUPPORT PROGRAMS. Many
departments, sensing the limitations of mere “suicide prevention training,”
have taken an important step and established peer support programs, which have
grown in popularity across the country. In a typical program, officers with
interpersonal skills and credibility are identified and trained to be a
resource to which other personnel can turn with their problems and issues.
Depending on the policies and limitations of
the department, considerable confidentiality is assured for discussions related
to job stress, substance abuse (common in police work), family issues and a
wide variety of other problems facing the officer. Easily accessed, the peer support officer is
particularly skilled at discerning the signs of potential self-harm and can
refer the officer on to more advanced and professional help.
have bolstered their department’s program by utilizing volunteer chaplains,
which have also been met by success. Often
working together, they and peer support officers form an effective resource to
which officers can turn in times of trouble.
great many departments utilize the services of an employee assistance program
(EAP), often through a county-wide network.
Here, generally, one can go and get the services of a licensed
therapist/counselor for a specified number of visits (generally three to six
visits per year). One advantage
it is a free program. EAP’s
“broad brush” approach, covering a wide variety of problems like substance
abuse, financial problems, marital issues, child rearing difficulties and many
others, including dealing with daily stressors.
next step, and another effective one, has been the employment of one or more
departmental psychologists for a department.
Most commonly, the psychologist screens new recruits, gives
presentations to the squad, goes on ride-alongs and is there to serve personnel
that are encountering problems or issues.
Psychologists can often be valuable resources, both for the department
and the individual officer when problems arise. One of the advantages of departmental
psychologists is (when adequately staffed) that they are readily available and are
commonly known by the squad.
OUTSIDE THERAPY. Some officers
prefer to go beyond their department and seek out a therapist or psychologist
at their own expense (often doing so on their own medical plan).
This has its advantages, allowing an officer to seek out and select a
counselor that he is satisfied is a good “fit.”
Such a visit may be with someone who has prior law enforcement
experience or specializes in areas like work related stress and trauma.
Confidentiality is more assured than with
NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION
If things get out of control and you feel suicidal, we urge you to call
the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You’ll be connected to someone who’s local to
you, is professionally trained, and will both listen and connect you with
resources for further help.
This is the really
big fear—that seeing any of the above will result in a violation of
confidentiality and that the information will be shared with ones department. Before getting into specifics with any of the
above, ask them first what the limitations are on privacy. This can vary from place to place as far as peer
support, EAP, departmental psychologists or even outside therapists.
Don’t be shy about this. Not only will this relieve your fears for
your job, but insure that you’re comfortable during the session.
Good mental health is the
responsibility of everyone, including the
officer on the beat. A cop who is
struggling with marital issues, stress or trauma is a danger to himself, the public
and fellow officers who are depending on him to be at his prime.
This is one of the most toxic, caustic jobs
in the world and the above resources are there to help you contend with
it. We recommend, in fact, that
officer take advantage of at least one of the psychological health resources
listed above once a year for a “mental health check-in,” just to see what has
been working well and what could work a little better. The idea is that, rather than waiting to “get
help when you need it,” it’s better to seek it before that time comes.
There is such a thing as a
full, satisfying career in police work—and a
good retirement at the end. For what you
go through emotionally as police officers, you deserve no less.
Andy O’Hara is the founder and a board member
of the Badge of Life organization.
Andy has co-authored one book and has written numerous articles for
publication. He is an advanced peer support officer, working with individuals
to find appropriate help and ways to deal with law enforcement issues. Andy is
a 24-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol, was suicidal and retired