On Christmas Eve 2010, my phone rang at 10:45 PM. The voice on the other end was the peer-officer support coordinator for a nearby police department. One of their police officers had not shown up for work that evening. For sometime, he had been involved in disciplinary action on the job and others were aware of his personal challenges.
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The patrol sergeant decided to drive to his house for a welfare check and when hr arrived, the front door was open as if the owner knew someone would be stopping by. After calling out his name several times, the sergeant slowly navigated herself through the house that offered very little light.
As she looked to her right, she saw the officer lying on the floor by the bathroom doorway. “Maybe he fell and hit his head,” she thought, or “Did he have a heart attack?” but as she got closer, she noticed the pool of blood next to his head and his service weapon lying next to his body. Her suspicions were right; he had taken his own life.
She radioed dispatch for medics and supervisors to respond to his address. As the information blasted over the radio, dispatch and other officers who heard the call, knew what had happened. The above incident depicts how police officers commit suicide due to stressful circumstances related to their job coupled with personal issues.
Recent statistics carried out in the United States showed that, New York State ranks third after California and New Jersey consecutively in the rates of suicide incidences among police officers. According to Eagle (2005), “police officers are eight times more likely to die by suicide than by homicide, and they are three times more likely to die by suicide than from accidental causes” (p.1).
Hence, high incidence rates of suicide among police officers as compared to general population are due to traumatic experiences of their job. Police suicides occur for a variety of reasons, which may include work or personal stress, critical incidents, substance abuse, and financial issues, as well as failed relationships, which enhance trauma and subsequent suicidal feelings.
It is important to note that, however, the role that the stigma attached to seeking help plays in pushing officers to make the decision to end their lives is significant. Robert Douglas, Jr., executive director of the National Police Suicide Foundation notes that, about 97% of police suicides occur by service weapons.
This implies that availability of weapons in police service can be a predisposing factor that contributes to high incidence rates of police suicide in the population. I agree with the thinking that an officer’s gun becomes his best friend and it is an officer’s first defense in protecting his or her life. Since police officers depend on their guns when doing their jobs, when they make decision to commit suicide, they use the available weapon, the gun.
Statistical studies confirm that despite introduction of several preventive measures to counsel and educate police officers, the incidence rates of suicide among police officers are still high. Eagle (2005) reports that, “the police suicide rate is 17 for every 100,000 officers compared with a nationwide suicide rate among the general population of 10.6 suicides for every 100,000 persons” (Para. 6).
Although the statistics depicts that police incidences of suicide are very high, it is still subject to other parameters in the population that may exaggerate true figures, but the fact remains that police officers experience traumatic experiences that predispose them suicide. The traumatic experiences that the police officers encounter and endure during the course of their duties make them susceptible to suicide.
Law enforcement community frequently encounters traumatic experiences that have contributed to high incidences of suicide among the police officers signifying that trauma is the cause of suicide. Prevalence study carried out in Taiwan showed that about 21% of the law enforcement officers experience trauma.
Leeds (2009) argues that, “police officers experience frequent and ongoing stressors in their work that range from cumulative stress – constant risk on the job, conflicting regulations, and public perceptions that may be inaccurate – to critical incidents: violent crimes, shootings and mass disasters” (p.4). All these stressors and traumatic experiences are potential causes of depressions that have made police officers become susceptible to suicide.
Police profession is emotionally stressing and physically dangerous thus eliciting suicidal feelings that expose police officers to suicide. Anderson (1998) argues that, “police have been tuned to dissociate from their emotions or suppress their emotions to endure the scene, but chronic, long-term and cumulative stress takes its toll on police officers resulting into trauma syndrome” (p.12).
The traumatic syndrome consists of suicidal feelings that at some instances overwhelm the police officers making them commit suicide. Therefore, police officers endure traumatic experiences up to a point in life where they develop depression that triggers devastating suicidal feelings. It is hard to grasp what goes in the mind of police officers that makes them contemplate suicide.
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The only way I can know and explain is by getting firsthand information from the police officers who have considered committing suicide. The police officers experience greatest trauma that an ordinary person cannot withstand and such experiences push them to take desperate measures of saving themselves.
In trauma, they experience tunnel vision to such an extent that they cannot see the available resources such as an EAP, Peer Officer or Chaplain. The tunnel of vision, unfortunately, has no light at the end of it. All they want is the pain to stop, so suicide becomes a plausible solution and their gun just like their best friend, is the only thing left, which they can trust to save them from the traumatizing circumstances by committing suicide.
When faced with traumatizing circumstances due to cumulative trauma experiences, police officers prefer dying than enduring the pain. Renee Meador, a retired Virginia police officer with 28 years of service, believes that although many law enforcement professionals insist the blue wall of silence is not prevalent, or deny it exists, this term suits most officers feelings about seeking mental health services.
Despite the fact that traumatic experiences that police officers experience during the course of their career contribute significantly to high incidences of suicide among police officers, police chiefs claim that police work is not only to blame for officers committing suicide. The police chiefs attribute the increasing incidences of suicide to personal and family issues.
Thus, as a comprehensive approach of addressing stress and other hazards of police work, I highly recommend that suicide prevention programs should not only focus on police career stress, but also the impact their careers have on their families. Reflecting back over my years of service providing support services to law enforcement personnel, I have found three common factors leading to stress expressed by officers who utilized my services: family dysfunction and marital discord, financial issues, and substance abuse, all separate issues, yet interrelated.
However, police officers do not see the three areas as related to the stress from their work. They express more frustration dealing with management issues and other internal factors that have nothing to do with their ability of policing. Nonetheless, stress generally has a tremendous impact on their mental health and well-being.
Ultimately, we end up with more officers dying through suicide rather than through the course of their duties.To demonstrate that both internal factors and job related stress could affect law enforcement officers, I have included this illustration of the 25 most stressful law enforcement critical life events outlined by James D. Sewell in his book titled: The Development of a Critical Life Events Scale for Law Enforcement.
In this chart, he places a numerical value next to traumatizing events experienced by law enforcement officers. Based on this scale, you can observe that the numerical value for a promotional pass-over, 68 is almost as high as a personal involvement in a shooting incident, which rates 70.
Officers need to realize that the accumulation of stress over time does have an impact, regardless of where the stress comes from. I often share with officers in the police-training academy that they should not concentrate on what causes their stress, but they should concentrate in managing the stress.
It is very important to recognize fully the impact stress plays on an individual and doing something about it. We can offer every type of assistance available for officers, but if they make a conscious decision not to take responsibility for their personal issues, we cannot make any significant changes in their lives.
Prevention of suicide among police requires comprehensive educational and counseling programs to help police officers cope with traumatizing experiences in their job that predisposes them to suicide.
Studies have shown that traumatic experiences of policing have psychological residual effects that lead to depression and subsequently development of suicidal feelings; hence, Violanti, and O’Hara (2011) recommend that police officers should undergo counseling and educational process during their training, service, and retirement to alleviate potential consequences of cumulative trauma (Para. 5).
The counseling and education programs should also incorporate their families for they play significant roles in alleviating traumatic experiences of the police officers. Mental health support services and other resources should also be available for police officers to access easily necessary information or services whenever they need.
Anderson, B. (1998). Trauma Response Profile. American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, 8, 1-15.
Eagle, W. (2005). Researcher: Police Suicide Rate ‘Epidemic.’ The Police Study Policy Study Council. Web.
Leeds, A. (2009). Police Officers’ Responses to Chronic Stress, Critical Incidents and Trauma. Law Enforcement Bulletin, 12, 1-8.
Violanti, J., & O’Hara, A. (2011). A New Police Suicide Prevention Program for the 21st Century. The Badge of Life. Web.