August 1, 2012 marked the one-year anniversary since San Diego Police officer David Hall killed himself at his home. Hall was facing a court appearance a few days before his suicide, for his part in a drunk driving accident he was involved in off-duty. He had been going to AA meetings and had just had a visit from the newly-formed San Diego PD Wellness Unit, which focuses on the physical and mental health of officers, and especially those who have put their personal and professional lives at risk. Whatever they said to him did not sink in and he took his life in his backyard, with a gun, while his family was inside his house.
There are many police officers in this country who feel the stress of their jobs, who reach the point of “allostatic overload,” and who don’t take their own lives. Yet, some do and it rarely makes the news. But there are many news stories about how one Army solider kills himself or herself each day. Where are the stories about the 180 to 200 law enforcement officers who kill themselves each year? Surely we value their lives and contribution to the safety of our homes, businesses, cities, and towns just as much?
The primary motivators for police suicide tend to center around two powerful drivers: loss, and its companion, the accompanying shame. Officers at suicide risk are often facing the loss of their careers, and as such, the loss of status they tie so closely to their profession. You can be a plumber, but you live your life 24/7 as a cop. Like many returning combat veterans who cannot “turn it off” and become and stay hypervigilant even when the situation does not call for it, suicidal officers are so tied to their perception of “being a cop,” that anything that jeopardizes that persona can become life-threatening.
The list of risk factors for police suicides are both common and understandable, because some of them affect the general non-police population as well: depression, alcohol abuse, marital problems, pending work discipline, demotion, job loss, arrests or convictions, financial problems, post-retirement medical issues (a lot of cops don’t make it many years into their retirements before they die of cancer, heart disease, and other stress-related illnesses), the sense of abandonment by their employer if they are in the process of termination, and a perceived lack of social and emotional support outside their peer group, i.e., “No one understands what it’s like to do this job.”
So why do firefighters have fewer suicides? They have dangerous, stressful jobs too, in uniform and in public. Unlike cops, who mostly work alone, the team concept applies to nearly all of their work. Firefighters work 24 to 48-hour shifts, with plenty of downtime to debrief after high-risk calls and their collective exposures to traumas and violence. They usually have better physical fitness than cops. The danger in their jobs comes more from events rather than people. And, “People love firemen.” Cops feel generally unwelcome when they are not needed (they see people staring at them in restaurants) and this contributes to their sense of detachment from polite society.
So what can be done and what is being done to address this silent epidemic of police suicides? According to an NYPD study, “Early and repeated exposure to the benefits of psychological services and personal stress management tools seems to work best. Every agency should attempt to create and maintain a psychologically healthy culture, at every ranking level, throughout each officer’s career.”
This includes frank and open Academy discussions about the issue; training for new field supervisors to see potential warning signs; coaching skills training for all supervisors; easier and more confidential access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs); working to remove the constant stigma among officers about using departmental psychological services; constant awareness-building about the dangers of suicide in divisions, squadrooms, and lineups; and hearing the words of courageous officers who will speak about their own positive use of EAP, counseling, therapy, and getting help before it was too late.
Says one veteran officer, who contemplated the act of killing himself before getting help, “Nothing about this job is worth taking your life. There is always, always, always a better solution. We will help you and your career. Have the courage to reach out for help. Police suicides hurt us all.”
John M. Violanti, a noted police suicide researcher from the University of Buffalo, said, “Police work is a psychologically dangerous occupation.” If we really care about the men and women who protect us on our homefronts, then we need to devote the same resources to preventing police suicides as we do to preventing military suicides.
Dr. Steve Albrecht, PHR, CPP, BCC, is a San Diego-based expert on workplace violence. He consults, speaks, and writes on high-risk human resource challenges, corporate security, and police issues. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org