Threat is an inherent part of life as a police officer – service pistols are evidence enough of this. But of all the threats that an officer may face in the line of duty, depression and suicide are among the greatest.
No one ever becomes a cop thinking it’s going to be easy. For some, though, the stress can become overwhelming, and the problem this poses is too big to ignore. According to Badge of Life, a group of active and retired police officers, medical professionals and surviving families of suicides, “The suicide rate for police officers remains 17/100,000, compared to the general population’s rate of 11/100,000.” Other sources indicate that police officer suicide may be as much as three times more common.
With that in mind, it is especially important to recognize the causes of depression that, if left unchecked, can sometimes lead to suicide.
Causes of Depression and Suicide
Generally speaking, suicide occurs when someone overcomes their instinct for self-preservation. In Why People Die by Suicide, author Thomas Joiner explains that two main conditions that are met: “that [someone] feel real disconnection from others and that they feel ineffective to the point of seeing themselves as a burden on others.”
This is true of police officers, as well. However, the job brings with it some special risk factors. For one, there’s the police culture that arises from the type of people the profession usually attracts.
“Police culture reinforces a professional ethos that resonates with the personal philosophy many officers already bring to the job from their own family and cultural background,” explains Laurence Miller in “Police Officer Suicide: Causes, Prevention and Practical intervention Strategies”. “Two primary qualities that almost all working cops adhere to are self-reliance and infallibility. Many officers believe that they should be able to handle most situations with a minimum of help and that ‘you’re only as good as your last screw-up.’”
Setting high standards for yourself can be a good thing, but for some driven officers, not meeting those standards can be an emotional setback.
Other typically positive qualities can also prove dangerous.
“Most officers are action-oriented and are used to responding rapidly and decisively in critical situations,” Miller goes on to say. And in cases where suicidal thoughts are present, “action, in the absence of sufficient judgment or knowledge, degenerates into rudderless impulsivity, and the imperative to ‘do something’ may propel the officer into self-destruction if this appears to be the ‘only way out’ of the jam.”
Warning Signs of Suicide
In “Suicide Prevention for Police Officers”, author Tony Salvatore puts it plainly: “Suicide is the outcome of a process and a plan.” Learning to recognize the warning signs of depression can stop a police officer who is contemplating suicide from going through with this process.
So what exactly are we supposed to look for? Suicide Awareness Voice for Education (SAVE) tells us the most common signs are “talking about wanting to die or to kill yourself; talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live; talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain; increasing use of alcohol or drugs; sleeping too little or too much; showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.”
Laurence Miller expands on this list with warning signs that are cop-specific:
Weapon overkill. The officer begins carrying more than one backup weapon, or begins to keep especially powerful weapons in his vehicle or on his person, ostensibly “for protection.”
Excessive risk-taking. The officer enters into dangerous situations without his weapon, with insufficient precautions, or without waiting for backup. Or, risk-taking may express itself more prosaically as reckless driving or neglecting health issues.
Boundary violations. This involves flouting departmental rules and generally stepping on the wrong departmental toes with a “so-sue-me” attitude. The most common examples include using departmental vehicles, office equipment, and computers for personal use. In some cases, this escalates to frank insubordination.
Procedural violations. This is similar to the above, and involves putting the officer’s career in jeopardy by frank violations of departmental procedure, such as excessive force, drinking, sleeping, or AWOL on duty, lateness and absences, violations during training exercises, and an overall attitude of “just asking for trouble.”
Suicide Prevention and Treatment
We don’t always know which police officers will be affected by depression and suicidal thoughts. There are complex factors that put a cop at risk, including a family history of depression and marital problems. However, with the right preparations, vigilant departments can reduce stress and save lives.
Prevention is the first and best way to deal with police officer suicide. Audrey L. Honig and Elizabeth K. White recommend taking the following preventative measures in their article “By Their Own Hand: Suicide Among Law Enforcement Personnel”:
Conduct psychological pre-employment screening of all law enforcement applicants.
Assess individuals seeking high-risk/high-stress job assignments (undercover, special weapons team, homicide, etc.) for personality/job match and the ability to cope with the inherent stressors.
Provide education to personnel and their family members regarding depression, suicide, stress management, and available employee assistance or counseling resources.
Conduct middle-management education on depression, signs and symptoms of suicide, and appropriate policy and procedures should an employee be identified as possibly suicidal.
Unfortunately, prevention isn’t always enough. Even with the best screening and education available, some police officers will still slip into a cycle of suicidal thinking. Recognizing the warning signs mentioned earlier is great, but acting on your suspicions is an entirely different matter. In dealing with police officer suicide and depression, departments should act swiftly and be careful not to make matter worse with counterproductive strategies.
According to Tony Salvatore, a comprehensive suicidal depression treatment program would look something like this:
Professional Counseling. This can be in the department, the union, or the community. Independent sources may be most practical. Referrals to local behavioral health agencies should be available.
Police Chaplains and Outside Clergy. Clergy assure confidentiality, avoid stigma, and appeal to the religious. Clergy of various religions should be available. Using clergy may be necessary in small communities with few local resources.
Peer Counseling. Peer counselors are officers trained to provide emotional support and make referrals when needed. This can involve access to peer counselors in other departments. Peer counselors are volunteers serving on their own time
“No Fault” Firearms Securing Policy. Officers should be able to discretely surrender duty and personal firearms for temporary safekeeping without penalty or the implication that they are incompetent or being disciplined.
Acting together, prevention and treatment programs can help police officers confront the struggles they face and learn a valuable lesson: that they are not alone and that their service and their lives are deeply valued.