Our Continuing Crisis: The High Risk of Police Suicide

A recent edition of “New England Psychologist” reminds us again of that great and underappreciated reality of the lives of police personnel: the psychological, physiological and emotional effects of police work itself.  http://www.nepsy.com/articles/leading-stories/police-officers-at-higher-risk-of-suicide/

Policing beats the crap out of human beings.  To date neither the police service nor the medical community has developed any widely-adopted tradition or protocol for attending to the damage.  As Dr. Kevin Gilmartin has pointed out, police do great funerals for line of duty deaths, as they should. We shouldn’t pay less attention or honor to him or her who has made the supreme sacrifice.  The irony lies in the comparison of how little we do about the greater destruction brought about by the fact of doing police work.

As Dr. Gilmartin also observes, police trained themselves in street safety to reduce the number of deaths in the line of duty.  Think about the steady advances in the equipment and techniques of officer safety in the past four decades.  We need to protect “emotional survival” with a program of equal intensity and breadth.

Police live most of their adult lives in a state of what the health professionals call “hypervigilance.” In that physiological state brain and body chemistry combine to create a condition of high alertness and readiness.  Gilmartin points out also that most humans live in a world of “probability.”  We can pretty easily sort out what’s likely to happen to us based on the life choices we make.  Most humans live in a world in which they know the risks.  Even in occupations that experience more on  the job deaths than policing the participants know what the risks are.  If you work as a lumberjack or in high steel, you know gravity is your enemy.  Police live in a world of “possibility” and unknown risk.  As police know, danger can come, literally, from anywhere and at any time.

More Gilmartin: The condition of living with unknown risk creates real physical effects on the heart and pulmonary systems. It deeply affects mood. Since every action requires an equal and opposite reaction, the job often leaves  practitioners depleted at shift’s end.  Alert, attuned and attentive swing to detached, fatigued and isolated.  That latter state sounds a lot like clinical depression.  This is where the threats to emotional and psychological health begin to concentrate, leading to suicide in the most vulnerable. Our hardest-charging personnel in mid-career are often those most at-risk.

In an article dated August 24th, 2012, the journal reported results from a survey by the Badge of Life organization.  (At www.badgeoflife.com Badge of Life is dedicated to prevention of suicide among police officers).

“Badge of Life determined that officers ages 35-39 were at the highest risk of suicide as were those with 10-14 years on the job.

“The organization advocates for police departments to encourage its members to seek voluntary mental health checkups just as they would an annual physical.”

One model cited in the New England Psychologist piece is practiced in Connecticut.

“A suicide prevention program is taught as part of the yearly in-service academy training for all sworn state police personnel, says Sgt. Troy S. Anderson, state coordinator for the STOPS Program (State Troopers Offering Peer Support). Established in 2007, the program has recruited, trained and credentialed 93 dispatchers, troopers, sergeants and master sergeants assigned throughout the state to provide confidential and voluntary peer support during times of stress. Participants receive a 40-hour initial block of instruction on the allocation of law enforcement mental health resources, active listening skills, suicide prevention and critical incident stress management with additional quarterly in-service training. The STOPS Program has addressed more than 5,000 incidents in the past five years…

“Police officers have the same problems we all have. They’ll all human beings. They have families. They have financial things to take care of. Add to that equation what they deal with on their job and what they see,” says John Violanti, a former New York state trooper and now associate research professor at the State University of New York-Buffalo.

Violanti found that in 93 percent of police suicides reviewed in 2009, officers used their own service firearms on themselves.”

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About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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