police departments still remain
in denial, we know that police work can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder
(PTSD). PTSD can lead to severe
depression and suicide. That’s a
fact. Many departments that have
experienced such a death, however, don’t know what to say about it. They
keep the suicide a secret (“the officer
died unexpectedly,” the death is “under investigation,” or they simply remain
silent), depriving the deceased an honorable funeral and often ignoring the
family after a few phone calls).
to 150 police suicides occur
each year—more than from gunfire and traffic accidents combined. In the
first quarter of this year alone, 30
law enforcement officers have died by taking their own lives, an increase from
the same period last year. How many
others remain “hidden” has yet to be seen.
a lot of talk on the subject,
to be sure. There are lectures and interviews
and television broadcasts discussing the problem. Articles are written. There are meetings, seminars and conferences
in which stories are shared, statistics are reviewed, videos are played and
power points are presented. “Suicide
prevention” training is conducted for squads.
Terms and definitions are debated and books are sold.
suicides continue. In some
departments, good programs are in place. There are peer support groups, chaplaincies,
departmental psychologists, employee assistance programs (EAP’s) and even annual
mental health checks across the country.
Some departments employ one or more of these, but too many do not. Recently,
a police chief was heard to say, in
discussing a suicide, “We had a program and we don’t know why he didn’t use
the first answer that comes
to everyone’s mind is stigma—the
stigma of “having a problem” and it being so serious that one has to seek
assistance for it. And this is true. Reaching
out is a challenge for police officers. Cops
are trained to solve problems, not have them.
It’s widely known and accepted that officers wear a mask over their true
feelings—not only in front of the public, but with one another and with their
families. Slogans like, “End the stigma”
and “Get help when you need it” are rampant in training sessions and on bulletin
boards, yet too many officers don’t do either.
And the suicides continue, year after year.
our hands, however, we
need to sharpen our focus. It’s not that
the programs in place are bad or even inadequate—in fact, they’re excellent.
It is, instead, a matter of who takes
responsibility for making them happen. It’s called, “leadership.”
In the case of mental health and suicide
prevention, however, that leadership doesn’t just begin at the top—it belongs
with the “bottom” as well. It’s a shared
obligation. What does this mean? It
means that the responsibility for good
mental health belongs to every person
in law enforcement, regardless of their rank or position. Among the 30 law enforcement
committing suicide this year, three have been chiefs—driving home the point
that suicide does not discriminate by rank.
chiefs have a wide selection of
programs to employ. Let’s take the “annual
mental health checks” as an example. In
it, personnel meet with an EAP therapist, a departmental psychologist or
outside counselor once a year in the same way they visit the dentist each year
for a cleaning or their doctor for a physical examination. The purpose is simple—to
look at the previous
year and see what has been working well and what has not. It’s an opportunity
to make changes, learn
from the past and expand on resiliencies.
Additionally, an officer knows someone if the time comes that they need
them, such as a critical incident. The
visit must be purely voluntary—mandating them is too akin to a “fitness for
duty” exam and generates immediate distrust.
For those who are suspicious of the program anyway (seeing it as a
pipeline to the administration) there must be encouragement to go on the
“outside” and visit a therapist there, privately—where confidentiality is more assured.
must lead the way from the top—uncomfortable
though it may be. Before officers will
accept the program, he must go for a visit himself and be willing to come back
and actually talk about its benefits to middle management and the squad. What
kinds of things did he discuss? What was it like? How was it beneficial? Does he recommend it? Such a presentation need not be overly personal,
but must demonstrate a belief and commitment to the program. This being a voluntary
program, it’s the
responsibility of the officer to then initiate it and follow through.
This is an
example of both “top-down”
and “bottom up.” It’s called, “meeting
in the middle.” The key point, however,
is that whether it’s pursued with a peer support officer, a chaplain, the EAP
or an outside therapist, good mental health is the responsibility of every
individual in law enforcement. An officer who is preoccupied by stress, anxiety
or depression is a danger to himself, the public and the officers around him
who are depending on him to be at his prime.
The days of
getting help “when you need
it” are past. We are now in the era of
getting help “before” you need it.
Take responsibility for your own mental
health. In this toxic, caustic work
environment, you deserve no less.
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 with PTSD.