Suicide: The Silent Killer That Stalks Police Officers
Suicide: The Silent Killer That Stalks Police Officers
Police officers spend their careers fighting. Fighting those that would prey on innocent victims, fighting a media that vilifies police officers, fighting to raise a family on a police officer’s salary, fighting to survive a critical incident, and sometimes fighting their own administration.
Despite these challenges, most of these officers will tell you that there is not another job in this world that they would rather be doing. Police officers are a special breed. Typically type-A personalities with a very strong ethical compass.
Day-in and day-out police officers deal with the best and the worst of society. They deal with death, destruction, and all that is evil in this world. There are a thousand memories that I will wish I didn’t collect before I retire. This is true of most career police officers. We have seen it all, and we have done it all. Our nature leads us to be very closed about our personal lives and a silent killer is stalking police officers, whether the officers themselves realize it, or not. That killer is suicide.
No police officer ever wants to admit that a call has affected them emotionally. No police officer wants to show weakness when a child dies in their arms. No police officer wants to admit that they are having financial troubles, or that their marriage is falling apart, or that they have alienated themselves from their children because they work so many overtime hours. This lack of communication leads to walls, which leads to solitude, which leads to depression, which, when not addressed, leads to suicide. Suicide rates among police officers in this country have shown a slight decrease since 2008 but even one is too many. To lose the life of even one hero to suicide is an unacceptable loss.
Police suicides are very hard to track. Some are made to look like accidents, some are made to look like felonious acts committed by another, and some simply are not reported as such. Despite the difficulties in reporting police suicides, one research team took it upon themselves to try to uncover valid, realistic, and true numbers. The O’Hara, Violanti, Levinson, and Clark (2013) study, which was published on policesuicidestudy.com, is a good indicator of the issues facing police officers in today’s world. They conducted three separate time-sensitive studies, 2008, 2009, and another in 2012.
The first of the three studies in 2008 was published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health. In 2008 they indicated that there were 141 police suicides. More interestingly, officers ages 35 to 39 were at the highest risk and the length of service time at the highest risk was between 10 and 14 years. 64% of those suicides were called a surprise and unexpected.
They repeated the study in 2009 and saw an increase in police officer suicides from the initial 141; they recorded 143 police suicides in 2009. Also notable is that the age range in 2009 increased to between 40 and 44 years and the years of service went up from 10 to 14 years in 2008 to 20 years of service and above. 20 years of service and these officers are taking their own lives!
The most recent published study is from 2012 and published in 2013. Thankfully it shows a drop in police suicides from the previous 2008 and 2009 studies. In 2012 they recorded 126 police officer suicides. Again, ages 40 to 44 were most at risk and length of service went down to 15 to 19 years. 91% of the suicides were males, 63% of them were single, and 11% of them are military veterans.
No one knows for sure what has caused the downward trend but one could surmise that it’s from the recent enhancements to peer support programs and a stronger focus on mental health. Not only the mental health of the officers, but that of the general public as well. The subject is still taboo among police officers though. Many will not discuss it because they feel that an officer taking his own life somehow dishonors the profession.
We Are The Sheepdogs. We are the Wolf Hunters. Do not let your fellow brothers and sisters fall to their own demons. Always be cognizant of the things they say, the things they do, and the way they are acting. Here are some common things to look for, and to be mindful of, during your day-to-day interaction, whether they be your partner, your supervisor, or your subordinate, we must protect each other:
- The officer begins talking about suicide or death more often
- The officer starts to question the reason for living
- The officer is self-isolating
- The officer gives away cherished possessions
- The officer has a sudden and unexplained improvement in mood after being withdrawn and depressed for a long period of time
- Hygiene and appearance begin to suffer
- The officer begins to act reckless as if they have a death wish
- Deteriorating job performance
- Issues with alcohol or drugs
This list does not cover all of the potential warning signs and you know your co-workers better than anyone else. Always be on the lookout for these drastic changes that may indicate that your coworker may be in trouble. Do not assume that everything will be alright. Take action. Take that first step to initiate the conversation that nobody wants to have. Urge them to seek help with a private doctor. Urge them to seek help with their agency’s employee assistance program. Urge them to seek help through you. Whatever you do, urge them to seek help. Blue lives matter.
O’Hara, A. F., Violanti, J. M., Levenson Jr., R. L., Clark Sr., R. G. (2013), National police suicide estimates: Web surveillance study III.