Late last year, three days before Christmas, three officers took their own lives. They left behind children, a partner, a spouse. Let that sink in. Three days before Christmas these brave police officers died by suicide.
Suicide is something many departments don’t want to talk about. They brush it aside, rationalizing that it’s a personal issue, not something that can be solved at a department level. But the problem of suicide is not going away. According to Blue H.E.L.P., 228 current or former brave officers died by suicide in 2019. I say brave officers, because it is how they lived that matters, not how they died. Their lives mattered, and more importantly, what they were experiencing before they took their own lives mattered.
Where were you? What are you doing in your department to maintain the health and wellness of your officers? Do you value your officers as an asset—enough to confront this problem? If your efforts amount to a handout or a 15-minute video clip, you’re checking a box, not addressing the issue. Is officer wellness a priority and supported from the top down or is it merely lip service? Do you have a peer support group in your department that can be trusted? Do your officers believe you truly “have their six”? Have you lost an officer to suicide in your department? How did you handle it? What changes did you make?
Departments that are not addressing stress, suicide prevention and the trauma of the job are failing their officers. How can we do better?
Break Down the Stigma
The first thing to do is to break down the stigma by recognizing the stress of the job. Departments need to foster an open, honest environment and create lines of communication with officers from the top down. Command must truly support officer wellness and throw out the old notions of weakness.
Start discussing compassion fatigue, burnout and trauma in supervision and during roll calls. Consider allowing for flexible work schedules and incorporating exercise before shifts, recognize the need for down time and vacations, and rotate job assignments, especially for those officers working predator or special victim details. After an officer-involved shooting, a motor vehicle accident or any incident, officers should have a department that openly supports them discussing their reactions and encourages them to seek help without fear of losing their job.
Recovery is possible. Officers can and do seek treatment and come back to their respective departments better than before.
Another way to break down stigma is in how we take care of the families of officers who have died by suicide. All too often when a suicide occurs in a department, the families are shunned. They lose their benefits and the connection with the department. Fellow officers may not be allowed to attend the funeral—or if they are allowed, they must go out of uniform. Honor guard? Forget about it. The “Blue Family” talk often goes out the window once an officer dies by suicide. As a board member of Blue H.E.L.P., I see this scenario played out time and again. Don’t get me wrong, some departments are more supportive than others. Some have stepped up and taken care of the family, but that is not the norm across the country.
The way we communicate about officers who have died by suicide can reinforce the shame and secrecy around the issue—or it can be an opportunity for the department to show its support for officers and its commitment to preventing another suicide.
Create a Culture of Acceptance
Law enforcement fosters a culture of being strong, that showing emotions or asking for help is a weakness. Let’s not forget, “It’s what you signed up for” and “I can handle it, why can’t you?” These sentiments are not only detrimental to an officer seeking help, but they perpetuate the stigma of seeking treatment.
We need to recognize and emphasize that the job affects everyone differently and that good mental health is no different than good physical health. In fact, mental and physical health go hand-in-hand. Officers need to know wellness services are normal, and after a crisis they should be given processing time as well as access to resources—not just for a few days, but for weeks and months after an event.
Let’s not forget that peer support is an essential part of this as well, especially when an officer experiences personal events such as the death of a loved one or a divorce. This is when support and acceptance may be needed the most.
Stop Throwing Good Officers Away
While it is easy to separate an officer from a department, it is not always a wise decision. Why are you throwing good officers away? Stop doing that. Officers are not numbers; they are an asset and need to be treated as such. It is far too costly to replace them, especially with the current difficulties in recruitment.
Recovery is possible. Officers can and do seek treatment and come back to their respective departments better than before. They return not only to the department, but as a testament to your leadership and compassion to support them in their time of need. This reverberates across the department and fosters a stronger department.
It Starts with You
Law enforcement leaders at all levels need to support their people and model positive behaviors. It starts with you—eating properly, exercising and engaging in stress reduction techniques such as deep breathing, walking and meditation. The more we model such behaviors, the more we advance the conversation around mental health and show our fellow officers that mental wellness is possible, but it requires an effort and an honesty with ourselves and others.
As an law enforcement trainer, I don’t want to lose another officer to suicide, especially when we can work together to raise awareness and promote suicide prevention and wellness. If you are as adamant as I am at reducing law enforcement suicide, you will start by taking a hard look at your department and how you can support your brothers and sisters in blue.