A New Police Suicide Prevention Program from Badge of Life

A Study of Police Suicide in 2008-2012
The Police Memorial - Where's the Rest of It?
2012 Police Suicides: the NSOPS Study
BADGE OF LIFE - TALKING TO THE SUICIDAL PERSON
Police Stress vs Trauma--a difference?
Does PTSD Cause Violence? from the Badge of Life
Compiling Police Suicide Data in a Complex Age
Police Suicide Stats and Chicken Little
Cumulative PTSD - a Silent Killer
A New Police Suicide Prevention Program for the 21st Century
Police Suicide, Just a Bad Choice?
Law Enforcement Alcoholics Anonymous
Aamodt & Stalnaker, Police Suicides and Cats in a Tree
Police Killings and Mental Health


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!"

The Emotional 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.

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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--145 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.

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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

lawsuits

complaints

sick leave

alcoholism

Substance abuse

Criminal/other behaviors

On and off-job injuries

divorces

grievances

resignations

morale problems

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?
Simply put, 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.
Voluntary, confidential: 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 changes.
 
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? 
 
4.  How are things at home?
5.     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 therapist? Some 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. 
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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?”

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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 and PTSD. 
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, etc.

 

 

A 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.

ANNUAL TRAINING:  After academy training, officers should have annual training, informally, with a peer support officer and, ideally, a therapist, that includes:

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 and suicide

The value and development of "resilience"

Critical and cumulative trauma

The "dirty little secrets" of law enforcement

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)

         Self-reliance

         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 our work.

WHAT ABOUT SUICIDE PREVENTION?

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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The Badge 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.

Cop Shock

 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.

 

Allen R. Kates, author of “CopShock, Second Edition: Surviving Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)”.

 

Go to: www.CopShock.com

 

 

 

 

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