When It Comes to Dying, Cops May Be Their Own Worst Enemies
Straight talk about police suicide.
Posted Sep 10, 2019
The headlines are horrifying. Nine New York City police officers have committed suicide since the start of the year. Chicago PD lost six officers to suicide in an eight-month period. According to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping officers with post-traumatic stress, depression and other mental health struggles, thus far in 2019, there have been at least 139 law enforcement suicides in the United States. That figure, which includes retired officers, has the dubious honor of being the highest toll in at least the past four years. Police officers are now twice as likely to kill themselves as they are to be killed in the line of duty.
President Trump recently signed a bill authorizing up to $7.5 million in grant funding a year for police suicide prevention efforts, mental health screenings, and training to identify officers at risk. Several states have approved post-traumatic stress disorder as presumptive and compensable for first responders under Worker's Compensation. As the magnitude of this problem is becoming more visible, police departments across the nation are initiating suicide prevention programs as well as peer support, chaplaincy services, and culturally competent mental health providers. So why is the suicide rate going up, not down? Is this a statistical oddball? Or is there some enduring aspect of law enforcement culture that works against suicidal officers getting the help they need in a timely way?
September is National Suicide Prevention Month. In September of 2018, I blogged about the causes, signs, and symptoms of police suicide and what friends and family can or can't do to prevent another tragedy. That blog is still available for you to read. This year I'm going to look at some ways in which officers block themselves from getting help.
Concerns about confidentiality: If you don't trust your department, for whatever reason, if you're suicidal why would you trust the people with whom your department contracts to provide confidential mental health services? I worked with one department for 25 years. When I left, there were still LEOs who mistakenly believed I had a video feed that went directly from my office to the chief's office. Being suspicious is part of the culture. There is also a lot of misinformation about what is or isn't confidential or privileged information. If an officer reports that he or she was abused as a child, (something that may contribute to feeling suicidal) a clinician is not routinely required to report this abuse unless there is a reason to believe there are children who are currently at risk from the abuser.
Most employee assistance programs only report who uses their services by code, not by name or department. There is no confidentiality in group counseling or in fitness-for-duty evaluations. Whether or not peer supporters have the privilege (legal protection against disclosure) varies from state to state. The takeaway here is that officers and their providers should be crystal clear about the limitations of confidentiality. LEOs should avoid making assumptions or believing rumors.
Incident Envy: Thinking you are less deserving of help than someone else. We see this frequently at the First Responders Support Network retreats. Someone feels shame because they are struggling with a SIDS death while the client in the next seat is struggling with the aftermath of a headline-making fatal shooting. Trauma is not a competitive sport. What causes pain to you may not cause pain to someone else, and vice versa. What bothered you this year may not have bothered you the year before. If you are suffering for any reason, get help. Whether it's in your personal or professional life, take care of the small stuff before it stacks up and you feel overwhelmed.
The Myth of Uniqueness: Thinking no one else will understand. Ego or self-inflation is an occupational hazard in law enforcement. Remember the bumper sticker that says "We are all unique, just like everyone else." If you're suffering, find a friend or a peer supporter you trust. Chances are they have walked in your shoes. Talk to your family or friends. Police work is not astrophysics, it can be understood. The people who care for you don't want to engage in a post-incident critique, they want to know how you feel and why you are contemplating taking your own life. Find a culturally competent therapist, someone who understands what cops do and why they do it (see resources below).
The Imposter Myth: The fear of looking weak. When LEOs seek help, they are often unduly frightened that this means they will be seen as weak, incompetent, out of control, or unreliable. I think it makes them look human. In order to function on the job, cops have to believe in their ability to control, not just other people, but themselves, particularly their own emotions. They don't want to be a burden to anyone else (including their therapists). This is a necessary but unrealistic belief. Not seeking help for yourself (or for a suicidal buddy) because you fear losing your job or your reputation has far fewer consequences than losing your life. Don't fool yourself into thinking your family will be better off without you. The opposite is true. Killing yourself will damage your family for generations to come. Try to remember that.
Kirschman, E., Kamena, K. & Fay, J. (2014) Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know. New York, Guilford Press.
•1stHelp is a searchable database dedicated to finding emotional, financial, and spiritual assistance for first responders. It is free and easy use, and completely confidential.
•Safe Call Now is a CONFIDENTIAL, comprehensive, 24-hour crisis referral service for all public safety employees, all emergency services personnel and their family members nationwide. 206-459-3020.
•National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 24/7 free, confidential support for people in distress. 800.273.8255. Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7 crisis support by text. Text HELLO to 741741 to be connected to a trained counselor.