|Photo by MindOnFire
A New Police Suicide Prevention
Program for the 21st Century
EMOTIONAL SELF-CARE TRAINING (ESC)
For too long, we have reinvented and repackaged
the same traditional "suicide prevention," peer support and intervention programs in an effort to prevent suicides and get
assistance for those officers who "need help." The are noble efforts but, whatever we call them and whatever new slogans
we use, they are ineffectual. The numbers alone prove it. Police suicides are climbing each year. Even the
departments that hide them can't make the numbers any lower.
It's time to stop saying, "Get help when you need it." We need to say,
"Get the help BEFORE you need it!"
Self-Care (ESC) program is more than just "police suicide prevention." It's a totally new
approach that “walks us into the 21st century” of mental health for police officers everywhere.
The thing we have to get into our heads, once and for all, is that it's not
"JUST" ABOUT SUICIDE. For every police officer who commits suicide, there are a thousand more officers out there still
working and suffering from the symptoms of PTSD.
How the Real Numbers Work
|Looking at the REAL problem
Tragic as they are, police suicides account for only a tiny
portion of our police force--125 - 150 officers each year out of almost 900,000. You run those figures by a typical police
chief and he's going to react with, "Why even have a suicide prevention program?" That's a good question. For a small or medium
size department, it makes the odds of having a suicide in any given year remote.
But consider this--that for every police suicide, there are
a thousand police officers out there, still working and suffering from undiagnosed PTSD. In addition to those, for every police
suicide there are another thousand police officers who don't have PTSD but are struggling with other problems brought on by
the job--anxiety, depression, alcoholism, marital problems, and more.
To a police chief, these numbers should now have meaning. By
the most conservative studies out there, we are now talking a total of 216,000 officers either suffering from PTSD or
some other form of emotional stress that is significant enough to alter and disrupt their lives.
By focusing on creating healthier officers (before they get into
"trouble"), we not only prevent suicides, but we also reduce
Officer deaths from shootings and accidents
On and off-job injuries
and much more.
These are dollar savings to a department which will
pay for an efficiently run mental health program. These savings are not accomplished by focusing on "suicide signs and symptoms"
and training officers to "watch their buddies." Experience shows this doesn't work. They need to be watching themselves!
And how do they do this? Through one important
element of our program that we call, "The Mental Health Check."
What is the annual
mental health check?
Developed in 2006, this is an annual
process in which we suggest an officer visit a licensed therapist once a year for at least one visit as a “checkup,”
in the same way one visits a doctor for an annual physical or a dentist for a cleaning and check for cavities and other problems.
The most critical component of the mental health check program is that it be voluntary and that confidentiality
be guaranteed, even if it involves seeing a caregiver known only to the officer. Any department that tries to "mandate"
such a program will fail, we guarantee.
This is where it happens—emotional
health is not a classroom exercise.
Sound uncomfortable? Make
you squirm? Relax, and just think about it. Your career is one of
the most toxic, dangerous, violent and traumatic in the world. You deal with “unhealth” on the streets every day
and night, then go home and try to lead a healthy home life. You are dealing with stress, yes—but more importantly,
you are dealing with TRAUMA on a continuum. While each traumatic incident may not disable you or give you PTSD, you are
dealing with it nonetheless, year after year, decade after decade.
Does it wear at you? Yes. Is
there a reason they believe police retiree suicides are higher than active officers? Yes. This is how you can keep
it from happening to you.
The idea behind the annual mental health
check is not that “something is wrong.” Something may or may not be bothering you, but the emphasis
is on doing it, regardless. The goal is to accomplish a number of things:
1. Bring up issues that are currently bothering you. How are things going?
2. Explore the past year in general and look for areas of concern or in which you might wish to make
3. Examine your coping and resiliency skills during stressful and traumatic events. What are your
coping mechanisms? Are they healthy? How might you improve on them?
How are things at home?
Set goals for the next year.
6. Have a talking relationship with a therapist already--when you need them!
HERE'S THE DEAL:
This is voluntary. You don't
have to go! You don't have to see the dentist, either--ever. You
can let your teeth rot and "gum it" the rest of your life.
But bear in mind, also, that a clear and
healthy mind, over the rest of your career, can save your life on the streets. What you don't take care of today may
lodge in your subconscious and make the difference of a few seconds five years from now. It happens.
It may also mix with the screams
from last month and the spitter from next Labor Day and the dead kid at the lake two years ago and the wreck you
were off duty and leave you wondering why you're arguing with your spouse more, lately.
An annual mental health check is not
an elaborate process. What you make of it is entirely up to you. You may wish to start with your local employee
assistance program and then move on to a private therapist or you may wish to begin with a private therapist.
Why would I go to a private
officers prefer a private therapist because they are concerned about confidentiality. Bluntly, they don't trust their
department's program, no matter what they are told. This is fine--the goal is to get you doing what you need to do,
regardless of where you go.
Client-patient confidentiality covers
most things, barring a threat to self or others, or elder abuse or child abuse.
Wouldn’t I have to pay
for a private therapist? Probably, and more than likely it would be
a co-pay. Perhaps you already pay something for they gym or workout program you're in. If it’s a choice of
going or not going, we recommend you do so. The salary of most police officers can handle the co-pay and the mental health
return beats the alternatives.
As with a physical or dental exam, you
may find two or more visits desirable. Again, these are confidential visits, and the goal is emotional survival. Like
our physical conditioning, our health and our teeth, if we ignore our emotional well being and strengths in facing up to the
toxic environment in which we work, we will suffer the consequences.
Bill Lewinski, PhD., the Force Science Research Center: The
police-run website, http://www.badgeoflife.com/, devoted to psychological survival for officers, recommends that cops “visit a mental health
professional once a year, with the same diligence they get their teeth cleaned or go for an annual physical examination.” Committing to the ritual of a yearly psych check “forces you to focus on what’s
going on in your life, to take stock of yourself and how you’re doing,” Lewinski explains. “Without that
obligation, when do we take time to evaluate our mental health and our relationships?”
How do I select a therapist?
First, don't sit around waiting until you can find a "cop doc." We see too many officers delaying treatment because they
can't find a therapist who "knows about police work." More important than having someone telling they already
know what it's like because they're a cop is having a therapist/psychologist who is well trained in handling stress, trauma
Make sure the therapist is a "good fit" for you. Listening, interactive
skills and expertise are the most important considerations. Anne Bisek's "How to Select a Therapist"
contains excellent criteria to consider in picking a good therapist, qualifications, confidentiality,
WORD TO DEPARTMENTS:
This is a total
shift from the traditional focus used in past years. Therapy, for example, has been something to turn to only when
the officer “needs help." Now, we turn it into a preventive, rather than a reactive tool, much like range practice
and other training, designed to keep an officer from harm more than getting him out of it when it's too late.
We believe our programs have to be more than waiting until a
"crisis" or suicide arrives. They must be about long-term mental health for all officers--true prevention. This
includes encouraging officers to seek out and visit a therapist of their choice--through the EAP or privately. It has
to be totally confidential, and the department must do no tracking and require no reporting on whether an officer
goes or not. If an officer doesn’t “trust” anything connected with the department, we encourage them
to seek out their own and pay the co-pay.
The key is in how serious a department is about wanting a healthy force.
It's how much you truly feel the emotional health of your department matters. Can you go the next five years without
a suicide on a small or mediums sized department? More than likely, yes. But can you make a difference in the
number of complaints, lawsuits, reckless actions and injuries, disgruntled employees and grievances, alcoholism and divorces,
vehicle accidents by distracted officers and much more?
|No more "waiting at the cliff"
PEER SUPPORT OFFICERS:
No one is more important to a good ongoing mental health program for a department than the peer support officer. Police
chiefs and managers, however, must provide the leadership and example for the peer support officer to succeed.. No longer can they snicker and slip out the door with, “I don’t need any of this.” Seven police chiefs killed themselves in 2009.
Their officers need them standing in front, talking about their visits to a therapist and some of the problems they’re wrestling with—and not simply pablum. If they
wish to be true role models, this is their true test.
After academy training, officers should have annual training, informally, with a peer support officer and, ideally, a therapist,
The differences between stress
and trauma (there's a big difference!)
The relationship between mental
health and officer survival on the streets.
The myths behind mental illness
The value and development of
Critical and cumulative trauma
The "dirty little secrets" of
The importance of annual, voluntary
“Mental Health Checks.”
Resiliency is not a new concept, but it
is crucial to officers and their ability to handle the challenges of their work. Finding
an awareness of one’s own resiliency and then developing it with each year is not a “classroom exercise—it’s
an individual one best accomplished with a therapist.
The following are some “resiliency
characteristics” developed by the American Psychiatric Association. To
them, we have added “self reliance” (an ability to stand apart from the “pack,”) and “spirituality”
(a realization that one is neither alone nor at the center of the universe).
The key is the therapist, who can
work with the officer as incidents are experienced, reviewed and lessons learned. Instead of merely saying, "I made
it," the past year's experiences are an opportunity to build and grow--and enhance one's resiliency.
There is no better way of ensuring a solid
defense against PTSD, or providing an officer the means of recognizing instantly when he is facing its potential. We
have identified the following seven elements as crucial to the development of one's resilience:
Commitment to finding meaningful purpose in life
A belief in one’s ability to affect the outcome
A belief one can learn and grow as a result
Acceptance (particularly the acceptance of what one does not like)
Spirituality (which need not be religious)
Finally, the interpretation of resilience should be up to
the individual. This is the seventh and most important step--when the officer identifies his own strengths and applies
them to emtotional survival.
We need to broaden our sights from focusing
on a very limited number of police suicides and a greater but still limited number of “officers in crisis” and
begin developing an emotionally healthy police force that’s ready to face crisis and trauma long before it happens. This can only be done though:
1. Serious mental health training
(not token) in our academies. This means dropping some of the "ew-rah" time and devoting a couple of hours per week
thoughout the academy to training cadets on taking care of themselves.
2. Annual training in all offices for all ranks.
3. Encouragement of annual, voluntary and confidential Mental Health Checks,
in the academy and field,
Only with the above will we truly
address the police suicide problem with finality. It must involve sergeants and above, chiefs included, participating in therapy
and talking about it (this is called "leadership")!
We have shown
we can do half the job well. Let’s add the rest of the formula and finish
WHAT ABOUT SUICIDE
Yes, our peer support officers
will continue to need to focus on potentially suicidal officers. There will be those officers who "don't get it"
or don't want to, or those for whom the stiuation they are swept up in is far too powerful. In such cases, we need intervention
and personnel trained to intervene with strategies that can help.
See a typical
course outline at ESC TRAINING, and contact us with your questions!
We customize the program to the needs
of your department--our training is free and we adapt it the way YOU want to best use it. That's what it's all about.
Call us for the details on how to participate. It's free, it's easy.
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of Life “Emotional Self-Care Training” program is a necessary component of police work. Experiencing
daily contact with violent, perverse and cruel people takes a toll on a police officer’s heart and mind and has a toxic
effect on the soul. Officers need a program that allows them to unload the venom that has slowly seeped into their brains.
The consequences of doing nothing are shocking and heartbreaking, not just for the officers who had many years of life ahead
of them, but for the families who must suffer the loss and confusion of losing a loved one to suicide. An officer who commits
suicide dies once, but the spouses, partners and children grieve and weep every day for the rest of their lives.
It is a small concession for officers to do a voluntary annual mental health check. It
will prevent a lifetime of misery for those left behind, and give officers a greater quality of life and a positive outlook
for the future.
R. Kates, author of “CopShock, Second Edition: Surviving Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)”.
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