Cop Care: A Suicide Stress Relief Program for Law Enforcement
The suicide rate among law enforcement officers is at a rate, significantly higher than the national average. The repeated exposure to the effects of murder, violence, accidents and disasters takes its toll on law enforcement personnel. Considering possible preventative measures and programs to help alleviate this problem warrants a serious examination of the causes of the problem, as well as a discussion of what sort of programs and measures have proven successful in the past. In all likelihood, a successful model for lowering the rate of suicide among law enforcement officers would build on successful past models. This Capstone may also include new measures specifically designed for the prevention of suicide for law enforcement officers. The stress that goes with the job tends to lead to many ill effects; which would encompass domestic violence, heart attacks, cancer, depression, alcoholism, drug addiction and divorce. I hope the idea set forth in this proposal will encourage the appropriation of funds to develop such a project within our agency.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Acknowledgements …………………………………………………………… Page 4
Introduction …………………………………………………………… Page 7
Chapter 2- Literature Review …………………………………………………… Page 12
Chapter 3- Methodology and Funding ………………………………………….. Page 44
- Scope of the Problem ………………………………………….. Page 44
- Causes of Law Enforcement Suicide………………………… Page 45
- Strengths ………………………………………………….. Page 46
- Weaknesses ………………………………………………….. Page 47
- Opportunities ………………………………………………….. Page 47
- Threats …………………………………………………. Page 47
- Funding …………………………………………………. Page 48
Chapter 4 – Project Charter …………………………………………………. Page 52
- Prevention of Suicide …………………………………………. Page 52
- The Model Prevention Program ………………………………. Page 53
- Educational Materials ………………………………… Page 54
- Resources for Law Enforcement Officers ………………. Page 56
- Peer Support …………………………………………. Page 58
Chapter 5 – Lessons Learned ………………. ………………………… ……….. Page 60
References …………………………………………………………… Page 63
Addendum A (Letter of support) ……………………………… …….. Page 50
Addendum B (Gantt chart)………………………………………….. Page 62
CHAPTER 1- INTRODUCTION
Suicide is known as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. At least that’s the conventional wisdom. The truth is that such a statement may be a bit too confident, yet thoughtless, as the “temporary problems” may not always be so temporary. There are certain jobs and societal roles that inherently come with higher rates of suicide. One of the highest rates of suicide can be found among those involved in police work.
It seems unquestionable that the stressors of the job correlate directly with the suicide rates: potential law enforcement officers are screened for mental as well as physical well-being before acquiring the job, typically demonstrating health factors higher than those of the general population. Yet more law enforcement officers die by their own hands than are killed in the line of duty. Clearly, the word “epidemic,” while often used hyperbolically, is not too strong a descriptor of what is happening to the men and women in law enforcement. Just for clarification purposes, the term law enforcement officer is used throughout this Capstone Project and represents those individuals that are sworn law enforcement officers regardless of jurisdiction (e.g., police officer, deputy sheriff, federal agent, etc).
The numbers are clear: hundreds of law enforcement officers commit suicide every year. In New York City, the rate of suicide among the general population is 12 in 100,000; among police officers, it is 29 in 100,000. The rate of death by suicide versus death by homicide for law enforcement officers is not just higher, it is nearly double. Along with the high rate of suicides come just as many theories about why these suicides happen; understanding why they happen maybe a first step towards understanding how to help prevent them from happening.
This is a pilot project meant to establish ways in which we can reduce rates of police suicides in our country. Besides this, it also wants to unearth why there is a prolonged silence on this matter besides stigmatization. We are going to use already established methods, peer-reviewed sources and other appropriate methods to study and explore this phenomenon. Later we will suggest some of the appropriate measures that can be taken to change the current scenario. It is hoped that this report will make a convincing case for the funding of a suicide prevention program for law enforcement officers that is, above all else, effective in its mission.
Over the years, several theories (though not as many as one might perhaps expect) have been advanced as to why law enforcement officers commit suicide. From early Freudian theories to more contemporary models, there have been some basic fundamental similarities, as well as some changing idea as more studies have been conducted and more attention has been paid to the subject.
Scope of the Problem
Clearly, the suicide rate among law enforcement officers is dangerously high. Of course, one suicide is one too many suicides, but studies devoted to law enforcement suicide routinely demonstrate higher rates of suicide among law enforcement officers than among the general population. Given the fact that potential police recruits are screened with numerous batteries of psychological testing, passing candidates actually demonstrate lower rates of mental and emotional disorders than are found in the general population.
Studies show that 90% of those who commit suicide have an underlying diagnosable mental disorder. If fresh recruits demonstrate lower than average rates of such disorders, yet demonstrate higher rates of suicide, it seems to be a logical conclusion that the stresses of the job can cause mental disorders, ranging from relatively minor mood disorders to full-blown psychoses. If it is indeed the job that is causing the suicides, then it is the responsibility of those in charge to proactively address the situation by implementing effective prevention programs.
Law enforcement officers are twice as likely to die by their own hands than they are to die by homicide, and in some areas, the rate of suicide among law enforcement officers is nearly double that of the general population. It is probably not hyperbole to say that the problem of law enforcement suicides has reached epidemic proportions, and it is imperative that agencies seek to alleviate the problem through effective prevention programs.
Causes of Law Enforcement Suicide
This is an area of some controversy. As seen in the available literature, there are several different theoretical models about what exactly are the causal factors involved in law enforcement suicides. Early theories were centred on psychological models, i.e.- that police officers committed suicide because of some underlying psychological disorder. Later theories proposed a stronger relationship between the “outside world” and law enforcement suicide.
More recently, it appears that theories have emerged that combine these various factors, positing that psychological issues must be addressed, and an understanding of the general societal pressures on law enforcement officers. As noted in several studies, law enforcement officers deal with the darkest, most negative aspects of society. They are often the first on the scene when a child has been murdered, or a woman has been raped, or any number of different acts of violence has occurred. Law enforcement officers become conditioned to treating suspects in a certain manner, and it may be difficult for some officers to transition between their public life and their private life.
Police work has a notoriously rigorous standard of behaviour; strength, unity and loyalty are considered paramount to law enforcement officers. Officers who, for one reason or another, feel disconnected from their fellow officers, they may also become disconnected from their own sense of self, and then be at risk of suicidal behaviour.
This sense of disconnection and isolation can function the other way around, where a police officer becomes so “married” to the job that he or she becomes isolated from family, friends, and society. Along with high suicide rates, police officers also experience high rates of divorce and alcoholism, among other problems. A precipitating event, such as a divorce, may trigger thoughts of suicide.
The most recent theories about law enforcement suicide incorporate a combination of both psychological and social models. Becoming a law enforcement officer requires a sort of “re-socialization,” adoption of a new set of beliefs and behaviours contingent with the new role as a law enforcement officer. With this re-socialization comes a new way of thinking, one that may be more restrictive than the officer’s previous views on life. Matters of conflict may be seen in starker terms; answers to problems may be seen as a narrower dichotomy, a situation in which nearly every circumstance is seen as either “right” or “wrong,” “black” or “white.” This different way of looking at things which is a psychological change may feed into changes in the societal and familial roles. As the officer comes to terms with the fact that he or she views the world differently than does the rest of society, such a realization may cause a sense of increased separation and isolation from society for some officers. Add to this the pressures of dealing with the difficulties of police work, and a potential powder keg may be in the making.
Finally, it is theorized that certain significant stressors can trigger an explosion of this powder keg. A divorce, the death of a fellow officer, an on-the-job shooting; all of these may be triggers for suicide. Slower-building stressors may be a factor as well: the slow disintegration of close relationships, an increase in alcohol or drug use, among other factors, may eventually build to the point where suicide is seen as a way out of the situation.
With so many different theories about why law enforcement officers commit suicide, it may be considered difficult to determine ways in which the problem of suicide among law enforcement officers can be addressed, and how these suicides may be prevented. Interestingly, there are far fewer prevention models than there are predictive models, most of which centre around peer-to-peer relationships, and the idea that those closest to endangered officers must not only recognize potential problems but seek to proactively avert them whenever possible. Along with this, it is recommended that law enforcement officers take an active role in maintaining their own mental well-being, just as they would their physical well-being.
The peer-support model underpins nearly all of the prevention programs for law enforcement suicide. Training and awareness for officers may be offered at the agency level, through official channels. Further, there are many numbers of private organizations that offer support to police officers in hopes of reaching them before the advent of a crisis situation. Currently, it is considered appropriate to address, or at least to acknowledge, all of the various factors that may affect law enforcement suicide rates, from both social and familial factors to more internalized psychological factors. Whatever the specifics of any individual case, it is imperative that officers in crisis are supported by their peers rather than having to face their problems alone, with a sense of isolation that can grow to overwhelming despair.
There are private organizations around the nation that are funded through private donations, local fundraisers, etc. There are also larger national programs funded through taxpayer dollars and other sources. Though there are many variations on these themes, the primary methodologies on which we will focus are the types of individualized programs offered through individual police agencies and offices, often funded by private and public grants. This project will examine a small amount of the copious literature available on the subject of law enforcement suicide and the prevention thereof, as well as some of the many programs designed to thwart these suicides, with an eye towards the efficacy (or lack thereof) of these programs.
CHAPTER 2-LITERATURE REVIEW
In this section, the weight will be given both to statistical and analytical examinations of law enforcement suicide and to prevention programs designed to help alleviate such suicides. In some cases, the available literature will focus only on one or the other of the two areas of discussion; in others, the literature will examine both the “problem” of law enforcement suicide as well as the available “solutions.” In either case, it is important to consider the factors that seem to appear most often and consider a program aimed at alleviating law enforcement suicides that is both practical and reasonably fundable.
For the convenience of those reading this paper, the subsections to follow will be broken down on a per-case basis, with the majority of any summation and analysis saved for a later section. It may appear as if the literature being discussed is presented in a scattershot fashion, though if that is inferred by the reader, it is unintentional. Rather, the literature is presented in much the same way as it would be uncovered by someone researching the subject. The fact that the available information on law enforcement suicide seems to lack a sense of cohesion, of unified agreement about both the nature of the problem and potential solutions to the problem, is reflected in the presentation of the literature in this paper. Study in this field can be confusing, as there are so many conflicting views on nearly every aspect of any discussion of the matter; if this sense of disarray is present in the presentation of the following papers and studies that may actually serve to indicate just how complex a problem law enforcement suicide really is. This paper is in no way intended to be confusing, but it will paint as clear a picture as possible given the constraints of the format in which this information is presented. First let us have a brief view of theoretical foundations, on which this research is centered.
Freud’s theory was fairly general, applying not just to law enforcement officers, but to society as a whole. In his view, suicide was simply an act of sublimated aggression. Aggressive feelings, when kept bottled up, could manifest as suicide. This could be evidenced in higher rates among police officers because their jobs might require a more intensive effort to keep aggressive tendencies under control, given the nature of the contact with other’s aggression with which they routinely came in contact.
This served as the underlying basis for several different theories of law enforcement suicide causation. While the underlying ideas about pent-up aggression remained over the years, the theories about what they meant and how they manifested changed somewhat. There were those who believed that law enforcement once had a “social license” to commit acts of aggression. As this “social license” was stripped away in the middle part of the 20th Century, and law enforcement were expected to exert greater control over their reactions and behavior towards citizens, regardless of what kind of behaviors they were met with, this aggression, having to go somewhere, began to turn inward. This theory would suggest, then, that the rates of suicide among law enforcement officers went up in accordance with such changes in the rules of conduct; unfortunately, it was only in the same period of change that rates of suicide among law enforcement officers began to be more closely monitored, rendering it difficult, if not impossible, to draw accurate conclusions about such a correlation between changes in societal roles for law enforcement and an upward swing in their rates of suicide.
In the 1960s and 1970s, newer theories began to emerge. The idea of “social integration” began to take on significance in relation to law enforcement suicides. It was posited that law enforcement were, in many ways, disconnected from society. They were often disliked by large sectors of society simply for their occupation, and they confronted the darker sides of society with greater frequency than the general population. Exposure to death and violence should surely have some sort of psychological impact, so the theories went. Further, the nature of the work isolated law enforcement not just from society at large, but even from their own families and spouses, as they sought to protect those with whom they came in contact from the day-to-day horrors of police work. This isolation from society and family began to emerge as the leading foundation for theories about law enforcement suicide.
Variations on the themes of aggression (the psychological models) and the themes of social and familial isolation (the societal integration models) have, to some varying degrees, continued to serve as the underpinnings of most theories about law enforcement suicide, with various aspects of each “side” being given greater or lesser weight over the years.
In some theories, law enforcement suicide is a means of exerting control over a life that seems filled with too many factors that law enforcement cannot control. With so many crimes being faced by law enforcement officers each day, the sense of futility, of fighting a losing battle, can easily be understood as a potentially overwhelming set of circumstances. If law enforcement officers feel helpless or inadequate in the face of so much human misery; suicide may be a way of regaining control over the sense of helplessness.
- On the other hand, suicide may simply be an escape from the rigors of police work. Suicide may not be a way of regaining control; but, simply a way out of a life in which the law enforcement officer feels control will never be regained. Other theories posit that law enforcement officers feel changed or tainted by their roles, that they have become someone they no longer recognize, and someone they can never be again. This is experienced as a loss of innocence, and suicide in this instance may be seen as a way of killing off this “dangerous” person they have become.“Understanding police suicide”
In the Abstract to this paper, the author establishes that she is seeking to help the reader understand the general topic of law enforcement suicide. Further, it is established that the primary goal is to help make the “stressors” that can lead to suicide more clear to those in the lives of law enforcement officers who may be in danger. Discussions of job-related stress and its effects on the psychology and physiology of law enforcement officers are examined. The primary goal of the paper is less about programs that help prevent suicide, and more about how individuals may learn to identify potential trouble spots (Larned, 2010).
According to Larned, law enforcement officers start out with an advantage over the general population, in that they are screened before hiring for physical and psychological issues. The question is posed as to why law enforcement officers then face higher rates of medical problems such as heart disease and cancer, as well as psychological issues (with suicide being the most obvious example).
Larned identifies stress as among the most significant factors involved in police suicides (as well as in the other medical conditions mentioned in the article). The article intends to “identify those at risk, educate those affected by stress and depression, and promote the use of appropriate coping mechanisms before a crisis is reached.” (Larned, 2010)
According to the article, there is a strong correlation between stress and depression, both in the general population and in the police force. In a culture that confronts danger on a routine basis, anything that may appear to be “weakness” may be ignored or purposely hidden by a law enforcement officer, as an appearance of weakness may be seen as an impediment to effectively executing the demands of the job.
The author then identifies a series of “Myths” about suicide; they are reprinted verbatim as follows:
“Myth: People who talk about suicide will not do it.
Fact: Approximately 80% of people who commit suicide exhibited indicators of their intentions. Suicide threats should be taken seriously. People who talk about suicide may contemplate or even try an act of self-destruction.
Myth: Mentioning suicide or confronting a person about suicide will only make them angry and increase the risk of suicide.
Fact: For people considering suicide, having someone to talk it out with can be a strong preventive measure. Directly asking someone about suicidal intent lowers anxiety, opens communication, and lowers the risk of an impulsive act.
Myth: Only experts can prevent suicide.
Fact: Suicide prevention is everybody’s business, and anyone can help prevent the tragedy of suicide.
Myth: Suicidal people keep their plans to themselves.
Fact: Most suicidal people communicate their intent sometime during the week preceding the event.
Myth: Suicidal people always want to die.
Fact: Many suicidal people want to live better and happier lives, even while stating that they want to die” (Larned, 2010). What they are really saying is that they need help and relief from the intense emotional pain they are experiencing.
Following the discussion of the myths surrounding suicide, the author examines some of the common, and destructive, “coping mechanisms” to which police officers will often reach as a means of dealing with stress. The most common are alcohol and drug abuse, as well as a tendency to give in to aggressive and violent impulses, often directed at family and loved ones.
Given that suicide affects not just the victim, but also their friends and family of the victim, it is an incredibly painful act, leaving in its wake many grieving people. To help avoid incidents of suicide, it is imperative to identify the “Critical Warning Signs” of potential suicides. These signs are not limited to law enforcement officers; they are nearly universal. Among them are such things as the following:
Statements about committing suicide
- Less direct comments about general depression, questioning the point of living
- Isolation from friends and family
- Giving away personal possessions
- Demonstrating a sudden improvement in mood after a period of depression (while this may seems counterintuitive) it is based on the notion that the decision to commit suicide has alleviated the weight of the problems under which the victim has been suffering
There are more to this list; I recommend reading the entire article for further information.
The author asserts that peer support is highly valuable, but is not a substitute for the intervention of trained health professionals. This is in keeping with some schools of thought, and divergent from others, that maintain that peer support and intervention is the most significant way to prevent law enforcement suicide.
Given the author’s adherence to the stress/psychological model of law enforcement suicide theories, she goes on to examine the issue from a clinical perspective. In the author’s view, depression is the most significant indicator of potential suicides, with stress being a fundamental trigger of depression. Physiologically, law enforcement officers maintain a level of “hyper-vigilance” that can lead to chemical imbalances in the brain. Larned recommends routine mental health screenings and when necessary, treatment with therapy and medications to alleviate depression (Larned, 2010).
In addition to the discussion of clinical factors, weight is given to the type of “triggers” that can lead to suicide attempts. These can be any number of different things, from major life changes like the loss of a loved one or the dissolution of a marriage, to on-the-job events like having to fire a weapon in the line of duty, or simply working on a crime scene that is particularly disturbing. It is clear, according to this study that law enforcement suicides may have many different “causes,” and in some cases, it may be a confluence of different factors –an emotional “perfect storm”- that triggers the attempt.
Following the examination of the various theories about what can lead to a law enforcement officers suicide, Learned discusses the aftermath of the event, with detailed advice about how family and friends can cope with both the immediate grieving process as well as the long-term emotional impact. She then re-emphasizes the various signs and indicators of an at-risk officer, noting that those close to the officer should be aware of these signs and hopefully intervene in an effective manner.
Surprisingly, though in light of the assertions in the Abstract, little detail is offered about what, exactly, qualifies as effective intervention. Some mention is made of encouraging the at-risk officer to seek counseling, or to avail him or herself of any programs that may be available through the agency. Beyond these few vague recommendations, however, this paper is not particularly helpful in that regard. Still, that should in no way discount the valuable information that is included, from a thoughtful study of the various factors that can trigger law enforcement suicides to helpful suggestions for the bereaved. Clearly, any effective suicide-prevention program would be well-served to utilize the type of information found in this paper.
- “Suicide Among New York City Police Officers, 1977–1996”
The intention of this study was to simply aggregate the numbers and statistics relevant to police suicides for the time period specified in the Abstract. The methodology was fairly straightforward, consisting of the analysis of death certificates of law enforcement officers during the specified time period, and a comparison of those numbers against the suicide rates of the general population in the same time period (Marzuk, Nock, Leon, Portera, & Tardiff, 2002).
“For the 738,000 law enforcement officers in the United States, suicide has been considered an occupational hazard, resulting from job stress, high rates of alcoholism and marital discord, and the availability of firearms.” (Marzuk, Nock, Leon, Portera, & Tardiff, 2002) Given the belief that some law enforcement suicides are classified in other ways (typically “accidental deaths”) to alleviate the embarrassment associated with suicide, the authors took into account a number of other causes of death in their study. Among these additional causes were “accidental” gunshot wounds, carbon monoxide poisoning, falling from a fatal height, and other causes of death often associated with suicide. Using these additional numbers, the authors calculated lower and upper limits for the rates of law enforcement suicide in their conclusions.
Of the 688 officer deaths between 1977 and 1996, 80 were found to conclusively be suicides, with 75 of those 80 being caused by self-inflicted gunshot wounds, typically involving the officer’s service firearm. Added to these numbers were 22 additional deaths not officially listed as suicides, but that met the above mentioned criteria.
With these figures, the authors calculated that the suicide rate among New York City police officers had a statistically insignificant difference from that of the general population. From these numbers, the authors drew several possible conclusions. First, they asserted, because law enforcement officers are screened for mental health issues before hiring, they should theoretically demonstrate a lower statistical suicide rate than the general population. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, – it may be that whatever suicide prevention measures are available to New York City police officers are effective, and worthy of further consideration. It was outside the scope of this study to discuss those programs. Especially when considering that there are many different resources available to law enforcement officers, from large well-organized associations to individual therapy to peer-to-peer assistance. It is exactly these factors that the examination of which of these approaches are most effective, as well as how they may work in synthesis to help prevent suicide, that is at the very heart of the development of a single, cohesive program to combat law enforcement suicide (Marzuk, Nock, Leon, Portera, & Tardiff, 2002).
- Mental health check
This online organization views the prevention of law enforcement suicide largely through the psychological, rather than the societal, theoretical models. Under the heading of “Prescription,” they recommend a “Mental Health Checkup” on an annual basis. In tacit acknowledgement of the stigma associated with mental health issues, the site devotes an entire page to comparing their suggestion about a Mental Health Checkup to the types of physical checkups one would seek from a family physician or a dentist.
The site goes on to discuss what they label as EST: Emotional Self-Care Training. Put simply, this amounts to taking a proactive stance in addressing one’s own mental well-being. It includes not just the “Checkup,” but also ongoing personal inventories involving honest self-analysis regarding one’s state of mind.
The site offers suggestions about how an officer should seek a therapist. Some officers are concerned about anonymity, believing that if it is known that they are seeking mental-health care, that this is indicative of a “problem.” Acknowledging this phenomenon, the site offers suggestions about how to select a personal therapist if the officer is uncomfortable seeking advice or therapy through agency-sponsored programs.
Discussion is then given to PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), considered to be a reliable trigger for depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and, of course, suicide. Recognizing PTSD in an officer when it does exist is imperative, and the site asserts that the annual check-up could be instrumental in uncovering signs of the disorder, and beginning a course of treatment.
Overall, this site is simple, direct, and most likely helpful for those who come across it that is perhaps the biggest problem with this site and other similar organizations: one has to be actively seeking this type of information in order to find it. Removing the stigma associated with mental-health issues is not something that is likely to happen anytime soon, at least not on a macro level. Perhaps one of the most important factors in effective suicide prevention programs is simply making law enforcement officers aware of them, and making access to them easy and anonymous.
- Police suicide is an alarming problem rarely discussed publicly
Unlike the study of New York police officers and their rates of suicide, the author of this article quotes significantly higher numbers when discussing police officers in Philadelphia. According to his research, the rate of officer suicides is more than twice the average of the general population, at 29 per 100,000 individuals. Further, he notes that these suicides typically involve young males with little or no previous signs of mental health issues (Lewis, 2011).
This finding again highlights the difficulty involved in pinning down the actual causes of suicide, which would seem to be a necessary step towards finding solutions to the problem. If the victims of these suicides generally exhibited few, if any, outward signs of suicidal tendencies prior to actually committing suicide, and that they were also generally younger than the average age of their fellow officers, it may be logically inferred that many of these suicides were triggered by specific events. In other words, it would appear that these deaths did not result from a slow accumulation of factors such as deteriorating relationships, the psychological pain of substance abuse, or the ongoing traumas of simply being a law enforcement officer. Were those the cases, one would expect to see the statistics skewing towards older officers, and those who had shown at least some tendencies towards at-risk behaviors or exposure to risk-inducing circumstances.
The author points towards many of the same factors seen in other studies and articles on the subject, typically related to the stresses of the job and the potential for social isolation. “Many police officers see a steady diet of the grim underside of life that most people rarely see” (Lewis, 2011).
Being an officer can become an all-consuming task, and any situations that threaten to undermine an officer’s sense of self can be potentially dangerous. He points to a hypothetical situation in which an officer is questioned after having to fire his service weapon in the line of duty. Even if it was a “clean shoot,” the officer may feel guilty about having done it. Further, he may feel betrayed if he gets any sense that he is not being backed up by his fellow officers. When one’s entire identity is wrapped up in a job, any threat to that job can be overwhelmingly stressful, possibly leading to suicide.
In Philadelphia, the officers have access to a program called EAP (Employee Assistance Program). It is in place to help officers deal with all manner of circumstances, from job-related stress to relationship problems to issues of substance abuse, among others. As has been mentioned, however, officers often appear hesitant to seek the assistance of these sorts of programs. Just entering the office of the EAP can, at least in the mind of the officer, announce to the world “I have a problem,” in a line of work where weakness is seen as fundamentally incompatible with the requirements of the job (Lewis, 2011).
Like so many other agencies, Philadelphia struggles with the issue of police suicide, seeking to find ways to reduce the number of officers who die by their own hands. It is clear, judging by the numbers, that they must continue the search for effective programs to combat the extraordinarily high suicide rates among their officers.
- “Preventing suicide”
While not specific to the task of preventing suicide in law enforcement officers –and recognizing that law enforcement officers may face stressors and triggers that typically do not affect the general population- it is still a valuable examine what sorts of approaches have shown a measure of efficacy in preventing suicide.
According to this study, roughly “90% of suicide victims have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder.” (Sher, 2011) This statement can be a bit misleading, as “diagnosable psychiatric disorders,” in this context, can range from severe psychoses to what is characterized as “mood disorders.” In this light, such a figure makes sense, as it appears rather obvious that someone who commits suicide has, at the very least, a “mood disorder.”
On a statistical basis, suicide and suicidal behaviours are not particularly common, and many clinicians will spend entire careers without coming across suicidal patients. In addition, there are few behavioural patterns that can consistently indicate the potential for suicide, making predictions about who will and who will not commit suicide rather difficult. It follows, then, that implementing effective prevention plans is a monumental challenge for health-care professionals.
Author Sher breaks down prevention efforts into “Primary Prevention” and “Secondary Prevention.” In Primary Prevention, he focuses on the imperative need to identify and treat psychiatric disorders. According to his findings, the most important factor in any effective suicide-prevention efforts. He points to “…modification of social, economic, and biological conditions, such as reduction of poverty, violence, divorce rates, and promotion of a healthy lifestyle” (Sher, 2011) as ways in which suicide may be prevented. Such a set of conclusions seems fairly obvious, yet not necessarily easy to follow.
In Secondary Prevention, the goal is to alleviate the significant contributing factors in patients who may be considered high-risk, but may not have been identified as having a contributing mental-health condition. This is where the role of law enforcement officers comes into play, as the author notes that certain occupations such as police work and military service carry with them a disproportionally high rate of suicide attempts, both successful and unsuccessful. Along with high-risk occupations, so-called high-risk behaviours can be seen as potential warning signs. Anything from a tendency to act on aggressive impulses to an unusually high rate of engaging in dangerous sports and other activities can all be indicators that a person is at risk of suicide. Unfortunately, the author notes that this will cut through a broad swath of the population, carrying with it many who may fit those patterns yet will never attempt suicide.
While the author notes that psychological disorders underlie the majority of suicides, he also notes that it is not conversely applicable that those with psychological disorders are more likely to commit suicide. He does note, however, that precipitating factors (divorce, death, injury, and so on) can trigger suicidal ideations.
In conclusion, he reiterates that the most important way in which suicides can be prevented is to identify underlying psychological conditions, no matter how seemingly insignificant, and treat them as effectively as possible. In addition, recognizing that someone has undergone a recent traumatic event or otherwise dealt with some sort of potential trigger can be an indicator of a potential suicide. Taken in total, it is clearly difficult to pinpoint ways in which suicide can be predicted; thus, it is also difficult to pinpoint ways in which suicide can be prevented. The best conclusion that can be drawn from this study, as it relates to law enforcement officers, is the imperative need for regular mental health evaluations, and the application of treatment when appropriate. Given the fact that potential candidates for law enforcement work are routinely screened for psychological disorders, it is clear that the majority of psychological disorders that underlie suicides among officers manifest themselves after the officer has begun the job. This again highlights the importance of routine and ongoing mental health evaluations for all officers (Sher, 2011).
- “Practical strategies for preventing officer suicide”
Miller’s Article is relatively straightforward. He acknowledges the high rates of suicide among law enforcement officers, with an emphasis on the fact that it is statistically more lethal to law enforcement officers than homicide. “The suicide rate for police officers is two to three times the rate of the general population” (Miller, 2006). He then asserts that the key to preventing suicide is “timely intervention.”
Miller’s findings serve to highlight the frustrations inherent in attempting to even understand suicide among law enforcement officers, let alone attempting to prevent it. While some studies demonstrate a statistical inclination towards young men with no previous mental health issues being the most likely victims of suicide, Miller concludes exactly the opposite. According to his research, suicides among law enforcement officers are most often carried out by those who have previously demonstrated mental health issues, and are often the result of a build-up of aggravating factors that are then triggered into suicidal impulses by a particular incident or set of circumstances.
Suicidal crises, according to Miller’s model, tend to be short-lived because of their association with specific triggers. That is why he emphasizes the importance of timely intervention in preventing suicide. He asserts that approximately 70% of potentially suicidal persons who receive timely intervention and appropriate treatment will be relieved of their suicidal impulses in a matter of weeks (Miller, 2006).
As is the case with most studies related to law enforcement suicides, Miller attempts to look beyond the numbers and tries to understand why law enforcement has such a high rate of suicide. He notes that the law enforcement culture emphasizes a black-and-white worldview, a world wherein people and situations are either “good” or “bad,” “black or white.” Divergence from this rigorous perspective, where an officer begins to see things in “shades of gray” rather than in black and white, can have an effect not just on the way he or she perceives the world, but also can affect self-perception. This altered outlook, while not inherently dangerous, certainly can be troublesome if combined with other aggravating circumstances. In some cases, seeing the world in shades of grey can be a good thing; for example, such an officer may demonstrate a measure of compassion or empathy for those with whom he or she comes in contact in the line of duty. Inflexibility may come with the territory, but it is not always a “good” or “bad” thing in and of itself. However, if an officer who begins to see a change in worldview as a sense of weakening resolve, this may lead to the conviction that he or she is no longer fit for the role of being a law enforcement officer. Such a disconnection from a job that is notorious for its tendency to become the predominant factor in an officer’s sense of self can easily be seen as potentially troublesome. Add to this any number of other factors and one is faced with a recipe for suicidal ideation.
In the rigorous police culture, Miller notes that officers facing emotional struggles may be encouraged to “suck it up” or “snap out of it;” finding oneself unable to do so may lead to further disintegration of the officer’s sense of self-worth. Within this rigorous culture, Miller asserts that all it takes is one of many aggravating factors to trigger a potential suicide.
Miller sees the most important step towards preventing police suicide is “bringing the problem out in the open.” Educating officers at the top of the command chain to understand and recognize potential issues among their junior officers is imperative. A combination of ongoing mental-health evaluations and the recognition of, and intervention in, moments of crisis is the best way to prevent officer suicides.
Miller (2006) makes note of several warning signs that an officer is potentially suicidal. They are not unlike those seen in other, similar studies, and further, they also differ in some ways from the warning signs found in the general population, due to the specific nature of the stressors found in police work.
Some general warning signs are the making of threats, either to one self or to others. What may seem like an off-hand comment about suicide may actually be a serious display of suicidal ideation. Some warning signs that are more specific to the role of police work have to do with weaponry. In some cases, an officer may suggest that he or she should give up their service weapon so they don’t hurt themselves with it. Conversely, some officers may develop a fascination with weapons, compiling a collection of firearms that seems incongruent with the demands of police work.
A host of other signs exist, many of which manifest in an array of statements about the officer’s mental state. They may be vague comments about feeling down, or more specific comments about feeling the need for intervention by mental health professionals. In all cases, such comments should be taken seriously. In a culture that often places pressure on officers to keep emotional issues hidden away, even the slightest hint of an emotional issue may actually be disguising an overwhelming crisis (Miller, 2006).
It is these crises that Miller suggests must be dealt with quickly and effectively in order to prevent law enforcement suicides. Though many of his findings about the profile of a potentially suicidal officer diverge from other studies, his logic is unassailable as far as his belief in crisis intervention is concerned. Any officer exhibiting signs of emotional or mental crises should receive assistance and treatment as quickly and effectively as possible.
- “Arresting suicide”
The authors of this paper, as evidenced by the title, are military personnel. Like those engaged in police work, those in the military have an inordinately high rate of suicide. Many of the same factors that affect law enforcement officers also affect military personnel, such as a sense of personal identity that is strongly associated with one’s occupation; a potential sense of isolation from friends, family, and society; exposure to danger and violence in a manner inconsistent with the general population, and an array of other similarities. “Two key variables are at play for those who consider suicide: a self-perception of being a burden to others and a feeling of not belonging.” (Yosick, & Brown, 2011) Though this paper is not specific to police work, many of the ideas and conclusions presented therein appear to be strongly relevant to those involved in police work.
The emphasis in this paper is on the concept of peer-to-peer support. Again, this highlights the wide array of different perspectives on how to most effectively alleviate the prevalence of suicide, whether among military personnel, law enforcement officers, or the general population. While some theoretical models insist that peer support is quite limited in preventing suicide, and the role of mental health professionals is paramount, others insist that it is peer support that is most likely to help identify a person in crisis, and to encourage that the person in crisis seeks help from a mental health professional. At the risk of drawing too many conclusions too early, it seems that the two approaches must of necessity work in tandem, as it is often peer support and intervention that will lead someone with a potential for suicide to seek help in the first place (Yosick, & Brown, 2011).
As is the case with police work, the military culture places a strong emphasis on the ideas of unity and fostering a sense of belonging. Threats to this sense of unity are potential triggers for someone already prone to mental health problems. In the military, the disconnection from this sense of belonging can manifest when a member of the military returns from deployment; even if not re-entering civilian life, the military member may feel disconnected from the day-to-day realities of deployment in combat. It may seem counter-intuitive, as they return from deployment, in practical terms, means a return from the very real dangers of combat. Still, when the ties to fellow soldiers that promote feelings of belonging and unity are severed, this can be difficult to deal for many soldiers.
There are similar situations in police work. One notable example is retirement; this sudden loss of camaraderie can be devastating. In other instances, as discussed in other studies, can foster similar feelings of disunity. A law enforcement officer who feels betrayed by his or her fellow officers or who conversely feels that he or she has somehow betrayed their fellow officers may suddenly feel incredibly isolated. Considering that officers may already feel a sense of isolation from friends, family, and society, a situation in which that isolation then extends to the job may be simply overwhelming (Yosick, & Brown, 2011).
The authors of this study promote the idea of peer support as a key ingredient in any recipe for the prevention of suicide. As in the studies of law enforcement suicides, this study of military suicides focuses on the notion that there are certain common stressors and triggers related to suicide, as well as behavioural warning signs to watch out for. Recognizing these stressors and warning signs are fundamental to the prevention of suicide, according to the authors.
Further, it is imperative that training be provided across the board, from senior officers to the newest recruits; clearly, such a notion translates quite easily to the needs of law enforcement officers. The key to prevention of suicides is bringing the problem of mental health issues and suicide in the military, and offering training that promotes peer support and intervention in cases of potential suicides. Again, it is clear how easily these assertions can be adapted to the world of police work; if peer intervention in times of crisis can be helpful to members of the military, certainly it can be helpful for law enforcement officers as well.
- “Suicide in the Police”
This study, published in the late 1970s, offers some insight into how perceptions of law enforcement suicide, and approaches to prevention, have changed over the years. Interestingly, one of the first assertions the author makes is that the conventional perceptions among the general population at the time were that the rate of suicides among police were actually lower than the actual numbers bore out. Currently, it seems public awareness of the problem is greater than it was 30 years ago, though the problem itself has remained virtually unchanged” (Heiman, 1977).
Heiman notes that many of the studies of his day pertaining to law enforcement suicide were done from a statistical and societal perspective. In other words, the studies focused on raw data, on numbers and statistics that relate the rates of suicide among law enforcement officers to other occupations. Heiman asserts that there is a dearth of studies done from a psychological perspective; he seeks to remedy the problem as he sees it by attempting to address the problem from both perspectives.
Heiman used case reports of law enforcement suicides, rather than just the raw data provided by death certificates. “In the American cities, the typical police suicide was in his late 40’s, was divorced or seeking divorce, was at or near retirement after 15 or more years, had alcohol-related problems, and was likely to use a handgun”(Heiman, 1977). The files to which he gained access contained a wealth of information beyond the cause of death. Examples of this additional information included news reports about the deaths in question, interviews with friends, family, and co-workers with an emphasis on discussing the events in the officer’s life in the days and weeks leading up to the suicide.
Heiman’s studies found some interesting statistical trends, some of which may seem reasonable and understandable, such as the fact that law enforcement officers on the East and West coasts, especially in more densely populated urban areas, had higher suicide rates than officers in the central parts of the country, and in less densely populated areas. It seems logical that officers in urban settings are statistically more likely to encounter troublesome situations, and therefore more likely to develop issues in response to these circumstances. Heiman’s study used the available information to find correlations between various mental health issues and suicide rates, shedding light on the dry statistics of the societal view. Heiman came to the same conclusions that researchers in the coming decades would reach: that suicide among law enforcement officers is a multilayered problem, Venn diagram of overlapping societal and psychological factors. He offers little in the way of suggestions about prevention in this paper, but his assertions about causation, which were actually somewhat fresh and new at the time, made a significant contribution to many studies and ideas about prevention to come in the following decades ”(Heiman, 1977).
- “Suicide among police officers”
The authors of this brief paper address the study of New York City police officers (printed earlier in this paper) that finds statistically similar rates of suicide among police and the members of the general public.
They take exception with several aspects of the study, based on the methodology used to collect the data for that study. As noted in that study, the authors used death certificates from deceased law enforcement officers to come up with the conclusive numbers for their study. The authors of this paper take exception to those methods, asserting that they paint an incomplete picture.
The earlier study did make note of a number of deaths that may have been suicides that were reported as deaths by other causes. They did not, however, include these numbers in their final conclusions, in the numbers that got the most public attention. Additionally, this paper questions whether the number of additional deaths added to the study were accurate, asserting that there may have been significantly higher numbers of deaths that were reported as accidents that were actually suicides. They note, for example, that some officers have committed suicide by purposefully allowing themselves to be killed in the line of duty. Additionally, some officers may have engaged in what appeared to be high-risk behavior, but was actually behavior intended to “cover” the fact that they actually died by suicide; examples include such behaviors as rock-climbing and hiking, where a suicide could easily appear to be an accidental fall.
The authors also comment on the fact that potential officers are screened in a number of ways for psychological disorders before being hired; were these same tests used to exclude those with psychological disorders from the statistical general population, and then the suicide statistics among the general population would likely be much lower.
The authors assert that the point of their paper is not simply to be contrarian, but to address an important point: the stigma of mental health disorders. If the reported rate of suicide among law enforcement officers is artificially deflated, it may lead to a sense that there is less of a problem than actually exists. This, in turn, could lead to the notion that suicide prevention programs, and other mental health programs, were of lesser priority than they would be if the reported rates were higher. This is an interesting point, as the perceptions about suicide among law enforcement officers are seen as contributing to the problem itself. Further, this study highlights the confusing nature and often-conflicting nature of the conclusions reached by various studies about law enforcement suicide, confusion which extends to the development of effective programs for suicide prevention.
- Police suicide: tactics for prevention, a summary
The book by Volanti and Hackett purports to offer suggestions for suicide prevention that can apply to the general population, as well as suggestions that are specific to the unique demands and pressures of police work (Volant & Hackett, 2009).
As do many of the studies and books on the subject of suicide among law enforcement officers, the book begins by discussing the nature of police work, and how the distinctive requirements and pressures of the job can cause intense emotional duress. As noted, death itself is something that many law enforcement officers are confronted with on a routine basis; how officers’ deal with it will determine whether they are at risk for suicide or other mental health crises. It seems almost a given that some sort of mental or emotional health issues would manifest in law enforcement officers at some point, as it would appear to be a near-impossibility that one could become so inured to death that it would simply not have an effect of any kind.
The book goes on to address the typical problems associated with police work, such as the manifestation of high-risk behaviors, the use of coping mechanisms such as drinking and drug use, engaging in aggressive and violent behavior, cultivating a sense of isolation from friends, family, and society, and many other all-too-familiar problems (Volant & Hackett, 2009.
The book then turns to a discussion of a unique statistic in the area of law enforcement suicide: the use of one’s personal service weapon for use in the act of suicide. They speak of the “relationship” that officers commonly develop with their service weapon, and note that the majority of law enforcement suicides are committed not just with a gun, but with the officer’s service weapon, cementing the emotional tie between the act of suicide and the job of police work. They refer to what they call common police jargon for law enforcement suicide: “eating one’s gun.” This act has taken on a macabre nickname is a testament to the prevalence of the act itself.
But what about prevention? There are clearly many different viewpoints on how to effectively prevent law enforcement suicide. The authors of this book take a broad view, refusing to emphasize one particular approach. They assert that effective suicide prevention involves a number of approaches. One is through general education: creating awareness and understanding of the problem, and seeking to remove the stigma associated with seeking help for emotional issues. Another approach involves ongoing peer support, with officers routinely “checking in” on each other; this approach may have the added benefit of lessening the aforementioned stigma associated with seeking help for emotional issues. A third approach involves routine mental health check-ups, either self-motivated or made mandatory by the agency (Volant & Hackett, 2009).
This multi-pronged approach favored by the authors may sound overly-complex difficult to administer in practical terms, but to the degree that it can be cultivated, it would seem to be an effective synthesis of several proven strategies.
- Police suicide: are you at risk?
Unlike many of the other studies and papers discussed herein, this particular piece is intended to be read by individual officers. Dr. Ramos is a New Jersey State Police Officer, and works with several suicide prevention programs, including a peer-based group of New Jersey officers as well as a national organization devoted to preventing police suicides (Ramos, 2010).
In this “bulletin” (really, a brief essay), he addresses the reader in a one-on-one manner. He acknowledges the reasons why most law enforcement officers chose the profession in the first place: a desire to be helpful, to be of service to the community. He notes, however, that such broad, grand notions about altruistic service are quickly tempered during training, where the constant emphasis on sheer survival begins to cultivate an understanding in fresh recruits just how potentially dangerous police work really is.
As Dr. Ramos describes it, police work is “inherently negative.” People do not call the police when things are going well. Though this seems almost silly in its simplicity, it does indeed drive home the point about the unique and singular nature of police work. Dr. Ramos notes that while law enforcement officers are often tasked with taking care of others, there may be a lack of support for officers themselves. “The bulk of service calls are geared toward taking care of others. Who is taking care of us?” (Ramos, 2010)
He then goes through what by now appears to be a routine checklist of stressors associated with police work: the constant exposure to violence and death, the isolation, the use of dangerous coping mechanisms; these and other factors begin to seem all too painfully familiar.
Overall, Dr. Ramos views the isolation law enforcement officers feel as the primary trigger that is responsible, in a trickle-down fashion, for most of the other problems associated with police work. It is common for law enforcement officers to strongly identify with their job to the point that it becomes their definition not just of what they do, but who they are. As Dr. Ramos notes, behaviors that work well when dealing with a criminal suspect may not be so effective when dealing with friends and family or with the cashier at the supermarket. He stresses the need to avoid this over-identification with the job.
The question remains, though, as to how exactly this is to be accomplished in a profession where such behavior seems practically universal. Like many others, he stresses the need for training. Some of his suggestions, however, go beyond the typical ideas offered in many programs, as he recommends that such training, when possible, include family members such as spouses and children. He feels it is important for the law enforcement officer to understand and be aware of how his job can cause dangerous stress; so too should those close to the officer understand these same stresses.
Dr. Ramos goes on to discuss how programs implemented by Law Enforcement agencies should be easily accessible and come with assured anonymity. It is hoped that, over time, increased awareness of the problem will lead to a lessening of the stigma surrounding mental and emotional issues. As Dr. Ramos notes, few officers would hesitate to seek medical assistance for an illness or injury, yet far too often they will hesitate where mental and emotional illness is concerned. Any effective prevention program, he concludes, will include education designed to lessen the stigmas and encourage officers to view the seeking of emotional support no differently than visiting the family doctor. This will certainly not happen overnight, but as awareness increases, so too may the notion that seeking emotional support is a sign not of weakness, bit of strength (Ramos, 2010).
- “Predictors of police suicide ideation.”
He focuses on a few specific factors, namely psychological stresses –particularly PTSD- and the use of coping mechanisms, particularly alcohol among police officers. He then seeks to determine if there is a causal link to be found between these factors and law enforcement suicide (Violant, 2004).
Violanti begins from the premise that, because law enforcement officers are so thoroughly psychologically screened, that they should demonstrate lower rates of suicide than the general population. He sees the higher rates of law enforcement suicide as “cause for concern.”
Violanti identifies several key predictors of potential suicides. The first is “suicidal ideation;” simply put, the act of thinking about suicide (and in some cases, talking about these thoughts). Next is PTSD, which is common among law enforcement officers who often encounter situations involving violence and death. Signs of PTSD involve reliving or obsessing over the details of the traumatic event; avoiding situations that trigger memories of the event; and exaggerated responses to situations that resemble the traumatic event. One final predictor Violanti identifies is alcohol use; some studies have shown that nearly half of all police officers drink to excess. Taken separately or worse yet, as a convergence of more than one predictor, suicidal behavior becomes more likely (Violant, 2004).
Interestingly, a great number of the studies, articles, news reports, and other miscellaneous writings on the subject of law enforcement suicide tend to follow a few familiar patterns, focusing mostly on a statement of the problem with an emphasis on the disproportionately high rate of suicide among law enforcement officers, a general assessment about possible causes of law enforcement suicide, and some general suggestions about how to help prevent such suicides.
CHAPTER 3- METHODOLOGY
An appropriate place to begin a discussion about developing an effective suicide prevention program for law enforcement officers is with a summation of the literature used in this report, with an eye towards understanding what sorts of approaches seem most effective. To keep such a discussion organized, it will be divided into several subsections
These are, of course, just some of the vast array of problems faced by law enforcement officers that can grow to become causes of suicide. As such, programs aimed at combating these problems should be evaluated based on feasibility. What follows is an analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of approaching the problem with programs aimed at assisting officers at being proactive in preventing suicide among their colleagues.
The strengths can be a buy in from line staff when they see administration will back this program. Like anything else, law enforcement personnel and administration have a tendency to be standoffish in regards to something new. Having a strong effective leadership for this program will also bring trust from the line staff and administration alike. This would encompass not having one person running the program, but a collaborative effort of people in both a formal and informal capacity. Involving the kind of individuals that understand and appreciate the variety of diverse cultures in law enforcement, prospective and feel comfortable sharing ideas and resources can make this project flourish and grow into a successful program. Once this project has helped a few employees, others will be more receptive to it and will open up to the help. Administration will see the cost savings, the curbing of agency embarrassment due to internal investigations or bad press from bad decisions and a rise in moral within the agency.
The weaknesses will be the initial buy in from all administration and law enforcement personnel. Law enforcement has a tendency of not trusting change. Line staff believes administration will only help when they want information to sustain complaints or to discipline. Currently, there is not a program in place for this type of help for law enforcement. The current way to deal with this is to avoid the topic all together, which leaves law enforcement officers nowhere to turn. This program faces changing that mindset for both line staff and administration. The line staff needs to know and understand that if they use the service and get help, no one will view them differently. They will not be looked upon as weak or incapable of doing the job. I feel this will be the biggest hurdle to overcome.
Law Enforcement officers face dangers on a daily basis. Yet, when it comes to something as simple as them seeking help they cower. By putting this program in place, many staff members, both sworn and non-sworn could benefit from it along with their families. Families and careers could be saved early on. The symptoms of stress could be caught early on and treated before problems for the agency, individual or family could arise. These individuals could also spread the word of not only the service, but the confidentiality of it. That the administration will not target them for suspension or termination for the help they seek.
There will always be resistance to change and “the old way of doing things.” Administrators and line staff have a tendency of having the old militaristic point of view in regards to the law enforcement industry. This project must be introduced in a way that would have everyone’s buy in for it to work and affect change in our organization. I know administrators will want to know what is said during these sessions, but they must learn to step back and allow the program to work.
- Sought out funding sources for the proposed pilot project
In m research, I was able to identify a suitable foundation that could help implement some or all of the recommendations of this report. Due to this I decided to draft an initial contact letter to spearhead the funding process. I hope this will go along way in alleviating the suffering that our officers are undergoing.
“The Charles E. Kubly Foundation seeks to better the lives of those affected by depression by increasing public awareness of the disease and its devastating effects, eliminating the stigma associated with it, supporting suicide prevention programs and promoting improved access to quality mental health resources within communities.”
This foundation has funded prevention programs for law enforcement officers in the past. In order to receive a grant application, a letter must be submitted to their office describing the nature of the program for which funding is being sought. If this first step is approved, an invitation to submit an application will be extended. Grants are awarded twice a year; once in March and once in September. An application request submitted this time of year may quite possibly be approved and eventually funded in time for the September cut-off date.
Following the guidelines offered on the Foundation’s website, I propose the following letter be sent to the Foundation.
Dear Executive Director,
I am writing to request an invitation to submit an application for a grant. This grant, if awarded, will be used to fund a Pilot Program for suicide prevention in the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office in Redwood City, CA. Please find attached a letter from the Sheriff indicating their interest and willingness to implement this program.
Because of the unique nature of police work, the factors that contribute to suicide among law enforcement officers are sometimes different from those in the general population. Law enforcement officers are routinely exposed to stressors in their day-to-day life that most of us will never encounter. Because of the multitude of factors that contribute to law enforcement suicide, this Pilot Program will take a multi-pronged approach, based on the following key factors:
- Education through printed materials and regularly-scheduled seminars with the goal of raising awareness among law enforcement officers about the problem of suicide in their ranks
- An in-house agency tasked with providing information about the resources that are available for law enforcement officers who are in crisis, or are simply seeking a “mental health checkup” as a means of self-monitoring their own mental and emotional well-being
- The development of peer-support strategies designed to educate officers about warning signs to watch for in their fellow officers, in hopes of averting crises before they occur.
Because this is a new program, rather than one based on existing models, it is quite problematic to determine what the necessary amount of funding will be. We are requesting a grant intended to start the program and keep it going for two years, while it is determined whether or not it is meeting with success. Every effort will be made to keep costs down and to maintain a strict budget. Whenever possible, community outreach programs will be undertaken to seek donations of funds, printed educational materials, gathering spaces for seminars, and other potential costs. It is the intention of this organization to return any unused funds at the end of the two-year period.
We sincerely hope you will consider our request. We have developed a wealth of information about the proposed program, and we look forward to submitting it to you if we are invited to submit an application. Thank you in advance for your consideration in this matter.
Juan P. Lopez
Deputy Sheriff #510
CHAPTER 4 – PROJECT CHARTER
Exacerbating the problem of law enforcement suicide is, as mentioned earlier, the law enforcement culture itself. Signs of weakness are seen as a threat to an officer’s ability to perform the required tasks of the job, and officers will often hide the fact that they are feeling dangerously stressed. It appears that one imperative goal of any prevention program is to bring the problem out in the open, to educate officers of all ranks about the mental and emotional risks involved in police work, and not just the physical threats to an officer’s well-being. That is the basis of the study that recommends a Mental Health Checkup be planned by individual officers on a private, personal level; these checkups should be seen as routine, no different than a checkup with a family doctor or a dentist.
Considering the multiplicity of factors involved both in the causes and prevention of law enforcement suicide, it is clear that a multi-pronged approach to the foundation of an effective prevention program is of utmost importance. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem, so it is important to address the problem both effectively and efficiently. In this age of budget cuts and cities slashing the numbers of officers on the streets, the stressors that can lead to suicide may very well skyrocket, while conversely, funding for prevention programs may become increasingly more difficult to obtain. Because of these circumstances, it is imperative programs must not only be effective in preventing law enforcement suicides, they must also be cost-effective.
- The Model Prevention Program
It is important to note at this point that the following suggestions are being made with the understanding that this is a pilot program. The implementation of this program is intended to be as much a scientific experiment as it is an effective prevention program. While it will not be a “kitchen-sink” approach, it will utilize a combination of different approaches to prevention that take into account the variety of issues applicable to the problem of law enforcement suicide. The following are the key components to this project.
- Educational Materials
One of the most important aspects of any effective suicide prevention program is empowerment through knowledge or education. As has been noted over and over, in study after study, the unique nature of police work leads to a uniquely high rate of suicide. The idea of “education” means several things. First, it is necessary to educate all law enforcement officers about the emotional and mental risks of police work. Direct, easily digestible materials are likely going to be the most effective. Dry statistical studies or discussions of how stress affects physiology may be best suited for the classrooms of those who are seeking higher degrees in Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement. Information that is provided in a direct, no-nonsense manner will have the strongest likelihood of cutting through the clutter of the daily grind and hectic pace of police work.
Educational materials can be disseminated in a number of ways; the simplest are printed materials and lecture/seminar events. These materials were prepared after thorough research and study from reputable peer reviewed sources like the ones that have been used in the literature review. They will then be adjusted to fit local needs. Making involvement in these seminars mandatory, and presenting the printed materials in a test/quiz format, where participation is required, will have a threefold effect. First, it will ensure that every officer is exposed to the facts about law enforcement suicide; second, it will help to level the playing field, and perhaps help bring discussion of emotional and mental-health issues out into the open; and third, it may help some officers recognize warning signs in a fellow officer, offering the possibility of successful intervention. As John Violanti noted in one study, most potential suicides, when provided proper treatment, leave behind their suicidal ideation in as little as three weeks. It is easy to see the importance of crisis intervention, and education is fundamental to such a cause.
As noted, the printed materials should be kept simple and straightforward. Some key components would include:
- A discussion of the basic statistics and the high rate of police suicide
- A discussion of the various stressors and triggers associated with police work
- A discussion about police culture, and the possibility for social isolation
- A discussion of dangerous coping mechanisms, such as alcohol and drug abuse
- A discussion about what resources are available to the officers both through the agency and in the private sector
Working in tandem with the printed educational materials, a regular series of seminar-style events will be held. The schedule for these events may have to be determined at the level of the individual agencies; I recommend they be conducted at least quarterly, if not more often. These seminars would be conducted by one or more officers trained in the facts about law enforcement suicide. Though the importance of mental-health professionals in the prevention of suicide should not be understated, it is not the task of these seminars to provide mental-health treatment; rather, it is simply to raise awareness of the problem as well as to point to resources and solutions available. It is not necessary to bring in “outside” speakers, nor is it necessary that the officer(s) conducting the seminars be considered expert(s) in the field of suicide prevention. The only skills necessary are a knack for public speaking and access to educational materials. Some of the main functions of the seminars would be as follows:
- To “bring to life” the ideas and information presented in the printed materials, in an effort to reinforce those ideas in the minds of officers, and further bring the problem out in the open
- To make officers aware of what sort of resources are available to law enforcement officers, from mental and emotional counseling accessed through the officer’s health insurance, to programs implemented by the agencies themselves
- To foster ongoing conversation and discussion of the problem of police suicide, it cannot be emphasized enough how important this is. It is clear that police culture is a contributing factor in law enforcement suicides, and changing this part of the culture (to whatever extent is possible) can only serve to help address the problem.
- Resources for law enforcement Officers
As noted, law enforcement officers can often gain access to mental and emotional therapies through departmental health insurance. It is hoped that the educational materials available in this program would help encourage officers to go for their mental health checkups on an annual basis, or seek help in a time of crisis.
Beyond that, this program suggests the implementation of an in-house program designed to consistently reinforce the education so necessary to preventing law enforcement suicides. In an effort to keep costs down, it is recommended that this office be staffed by volunteer officers as well as retried officers. It is not necessary to maintain a large staff; in this case, consistency is much more important than size. Some of the key functions of this office would be as follows:
- Private crisis counseling: Officers who find themselves feeling overwhelmed should know that they have a place where they can go, easily and at any time, to discuss their situation and to seek help. Additionally, officers who believe they have seen warning signs of mental or emotional duress in a fellow officer can go here to discuss the matter privately, avoiding embarrassment and offering greater assurance that the problem will not be ignored.
- Access to resources: this office will serve as a clearinghouse for the wide variety of programs and assistance that are available to law enforcement officers. Whether an officer is simply seeking advice about how to find a therapist for a Mental Health Checkup or is in full-blown crisis, this office will have at the ready as much information as possible about what resources are available in the area. This list will, of course, differ from agency to agency, but the main consideration is that it be as complete as possible.
It is also possible that this office could offer a rudimentary type of Mental Health Checkup. The Badge of Life organization recommends that officers regularly take time to consider the following questions and issues:
- Bring up issues that are currently bothering you. How are things going?
- Explore the past year in general and look for areas of concern or in which you might wish to make changes.
- 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.
Frankly, it is difficult to force an officer to seek mental or emotional help without a precipitating factor or set of circumstances. Additionally, some officers may like the idea of undergoing a Mental Health Checkup, but for whatever reason they may feel uncomfortable about the idea of seeking out a therapist. In that case, there is no reason that the volunteers staffing the Suicide Prevention Office could not conduct an informal version of the Checkup, wherein they have a similar checklist of issues and questions to discuss with officers. It is even possible that such a discussion could help an officer relieve stress by getting something off his or her chest; conversely, it may help the officer recognize that he or she does have a need for further assistance, but this discovery has been made in a private and confidential setting. These types of meetings would be designed as a way to help alleviate stressors and pressures before they become full-blown crises.
- Peer Support
Peer support is considered a necessary component of adequate suicide prevention programs. In this test program, the role of peer support will be simple: as part of the educational process, officers will be encouraged to proactively discuss situations among each other, perhaps along the lines of a self-determined “buddy system.” Additionally, officers would be trained to watch for potential warning signs of suicidal ideation in a fellow officer, and most importantly, to take those warnings seriously. It is hoped that a measure camaraderie that is in keeping with the unity and loyalty of law enforcement officers can be cultivated to encourage officers to look out for each other where emotional issues are concerned.
The peer support method will be created in every police station. This is because officers at the same station tend to have similar experiences, interests and challenges. For simplicity purposes, we will have an overseeing authority at the officers’ headquarters that will develop the curricular and give directions on what needs to be done. They will e communicating using the already established protocol to avoid any conflicts.
While all of these ideas may at first glance appear to be a lot to take on, further consideration should reveal that it may actually be relatively simple to develop such a program. As noted earlier, it is imperative that costs be kept to a minimum. The most expensive part of the program will be the development and acquisition of the printed materials. It is recommended that those officers who volunteer to help implement this program begin by reaching out to the community in an effort to find donated or reduced-cost printed materials. The information contained in these materials can be easily compiled from this report, though further efforts to develop both the printed materials and the seminars will be made upon the acquisition of funding.
The next step, and one that may or may not come with a hefty price tag is the seminar. If the agency has an area in-house where large groups can meet (even if these meetings have to be split up into rotating groups), that would reduce costs. If it is necessary to conduct such events elsewhere, it is again recommended that community outreach efforts be made to find a gathering space, such as a convention hall, willing to offer donated or reduced-cost space for such events. Beyond those costs would, of course, be the pay rate for the attending officers; as these seminars would be mandatory, they must be held on “company time.”
The least expensive part of the program would be the volunteer clearinghouse office. With a little imagination, most agencies could find some sort of space within their organization to devote to such a program, and the all-volunteer staff would certainly not be a budget drain.
In total, the implementation of this program should be relatively inexpensive. As this is a pilot program, intended to be conducted as a sort of social experiment, it is by its very nature very difficult to forecast what the costs would be to launch it. This is not simply the adaptation of an already in-use model with a track record for their budgetary needs; this is a ground-up operation starting from scratch. As such, it is recommended that the program seek funding of $10,000 for the first year. This may seem like a high figure, given the previous discussion about budget concerns, but again, this is an unpredictable undertaking. It should be noted that every effort will be made to keep costs down with an effort made to quickly determine what the actual budgetary requirements are; with that in mind, it is hoped that not all of the start-up grant will be used in the first year, and that a precedent for the budget will be quickly set. Any excess funds can be carried over to the next year, while down the line, ongoing sources of funding will have to be sought if the program is considered a success and it is determined that it will be maintained.
CHAPTER 5 – LESSONS LEARNED
The lessons learnt from this research are significantly many. The investigation has yielded information about the epidemiology aspects of suicide among law enforcement officers, by extrapolation, other military and paramilitary organizations. Such organizations are shown to have membership that is more prone to suicide than the general population. What was found was an ambiguously multilateral causative agent. The effects of prolonged stress or distress, social isolation and the exposure to the more grim elements of life can lead to incongruence with the identity of the law enforcement officer. This incongruence is often associated with the development of chemical imbalances in the brain. Many of the associated symptoms correlate with those of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but at the very least, any suicidal ideation is indicative of a clinical mental health issue. Furthermore, it is not uncommon that the same life event ignites a critical mass of stressors that are known hazards of law enforcement as a profession. These can be anything from divorce to a shooting or witnessing a particularly brutal traumatic event or the death of a colleague or an on the job shooting that resulted in a death.
Although the epidemiology of suicide among law enforcement officers is well documented and organizations exist to assist officers, many go unused. The reason for this is two-fold. One there is a social stigma associated with mental health issues in society at large, but even more so among law enforcement officers because of the sensitive nature of the job. Another reason is that there is what seems to be an attitude among law enforcement officers that weakness is incongruent with the requirements of the job. These elements deter officers in need from seeking mental health assistance when they need it and further exacerbate the causative elements of isolation and identity incongruence. Thus, any programs aimed at helping officers intervene without seeming intrusive is helping.
With that in mind, the reality is that prevention can do what intervention cannot. The project outlined here is one aimed at preventing the slow burn to suicidal ideation with educational material for officers as well as professional crisis assistance and other resources. For example, it is important that officers think about mental health assessments as they might a physician or dental check-up and get them regularly. Perhaps more importantly, it includes a peer support program. The aim of peer support is multifaceted also. First, it seeks to develop a culture of greater understanding of the challenges of law enforcement in a way that augments camaraderie and trust to mitigate the stressors involved. Next, it allows officers to be what they are in safe environments – everyday people. Although officers are screened for mental and physical health that exceeds that of the general population, the reality is that law enforcement as a profession faces stressful events on a daily basis that not only would compromise the health of an average person but even that of an exceedingly healthy person. It is only prudent that this project and others like it provide a baseline from which to develop better and better protocols. Although law enforcement officials are generally regarded with dismay by many people, in our present developmental state as a species, their services seem necessary, and as long as they are necessary, they should be assisted in being as healthy and consequently effective as possible in the profession.
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ADDENDUM A: LETTER OF SUPPORT
Gregory Eatmon, Lieutenant
San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office
Hall of Justice, 400 County Center
Redwood City, California 94063
March 7, 2011
Masters of Science in Emergency Services Administration (EMER)
Department of Criminal Justice
California State University, Long Beach
1250 Bellflower Boulevard
Long Beach, CA 90840
I have read, with interest, Student Juan Lopez’ initial project paper entitled “Cop Care, a suicide stress relief program for Law Enforcement” and would be interested in exploring the final product for possible adoption/implementation here. I believe his holistic approach has the potential for great benefit coupled with a manageable fiscal footprint.
Gregory L. Eatmon, Lieutenant SMSO
ADDENDUM B: GHANT CHART
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