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Silent Suffering: Warning Signs and Steps to Prevent Police Suicide

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By Mark Bond, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

The police profession can no longer ignore the silent suffering of its officers. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is real, and it is a lot more common among first responders than initial indications.

Preventing police suicide is every officer’s responsibility.

However, the major hurdle to addressing this professional tragedy is the silence of the first-responder culture. Until recently, this unwillingness to openly discuss the impacts of PTSD has kept mental health issues a professional secret in law enforcement (Mittal et al., 2013). This has happened despite the fact that so many officers are impacted by traumatic events that often lead to PTSD.

[Related Article: Critical Incident Stress Management Interventions Help Heal First Responders]

Police officer distressed
Photograph by Kevin R. Davis

Research on Police Suicides
In one research study, O’Hara, Violanti, Levenson, & Clark (2013) showed that suicide is not openly discussed in police culture because officers view police suicide as dishonorable to the profession. Additional research on PTSD by Chae & Boyle (2013) linked the increase of suicidal behavior to those who suffer from PTSD. The O’Hara, Violanti, Levenson, & Clark (2013) study focused on police suicides for the years 2008, 2009, and 2012. Here are some of the statistical data from the study:

  • 2008 police suicides: 141
  • 2009 police suicides: 143
  • 2012 police suicides: 126

Profile of Officers Who Commit Suicide
The O’Hara, Violanti, Levenson, & Clark (2013) study provided some key indicators from the statistical data. By analyzing the data, law enforcement agencies now have the information they need to build a police officer suicide prevention program. Here are some of the findings from the study about which officers tend to be at higher risk of suicide:

  • The average age of officer in 2012 was 42 years old at time of suicide
  • The average time on job as a police officer at the time of suicide was 16 years of service
  • 91% of suicides were by male officers
  • The age in which police officers were most at risk was ages 40 to 44
  • The time on the job when police officers are most at risk was 15 to 19 years of service
  • 63% of police suicide victims were single
  • 11% of police suicide victims were military veterans
  • Firearms were used in 91.5% of police suicides
  • In 83% of the police officer suicides, personal problems appear prevalent prior to the suicide
  • 11% of the police officers committing suicide had legal problems pending
  • California and New York had the highest reported police suicides

It is important for law enforcement leaders to use this information to establish a profile of potential at-risk officers and proactively intervene by providing mental health resources and departmental support.

Critical Warning Signs That All Officers Should Look For
Chae and Boyle (2013) researched critical warning signs that indicate a police officer is having suicidal ideations. By recognizing these signs and combining it with the statistical data listed above, law enforcement agencies can work to develop a proactive suicide prevention program for their officers.

Some of the warning signs include the following:

  • The officer is talking about suicide or death, and even glorifying death.
  • Officer is giving direct verbal cues such as “I wish I were dead” and “I am going to end it all.”
  • Officer is giving less direct verbal cues, such as “What’s the point of living?”, “Soon you won’t have to worry about me,” and “Who cares if I’m dead, anyway?”
  • The officer is now self-isolating from friends and family.
  • The officer is expressing the belief that life is meaningless or hopeless.
  • The officer starts giving away cherished possessions.
  • The officer is exhibiting a sudden and unexplained improvement in mood after being depressed or withdrawn. This is a very dangerous sign because the officer has come to terms with his/her own death and is relieved the end is near.
  • The officer is neglecting his or her appearance and hygiene.
  • The officer is annoyed that they are going to do something that will ruin his/her career, but that they don’t care.
  • Officer openly discusses that he/she feels out of control.
  • The officer displays behavior changes that include appearing hostile, blaming, argumentative, and insubordinate or they appear passive, defeated, and hopeless.
  • The officer develops a morbid interest in suicide or homicide.
  • The officer indicates that he/she is overwhelmed and cannot find solutions to his/her problems.
  • The officer asks another officer to keep his/her weapon.
  • The officer is acting out of character by inappropriately using or displaying his/her weapon unnecessarily.
  • The officer exhibits reckless behavior by taking unnecessary risks on the job and/or in his/her personal lives. The officer acts like he/she has a death wish.
  • The officer carries weapons in a reckless, unsafe manner.
  • The officer exhibits deteriorating job performance.
  • The officer has recent issues with alcohol and/or drugs.

Preventing police suicide is every officer’s responsibility and is an obligation of every member of the law enforcement community.

It is important to remember that it takes strong leadership and tireless courage to change this culture of silence and that such change does not weaken the profession, but instead strengthens the bond that makes it a noble and honorable profession, protecting the weak and innocent from harm.

Here are some additional resources on what you can do to help prevent police suicide:
The Badge of Life
Police Suicide Prevention and Awareness

Remember, the ethical warrior leads by example and supports others when they are down—especially when that person is one of our own.

About the Author: Mark Bond has worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms trainer for more than 29 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military and local, state, and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a B.S. and M.S. in Criminal Justice, and M.Ed in Educational Leadership with summa cum laude honors. As a lifelong learner, he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in education with a concentration in distance education. Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at American Military University & American Public University and is one of the faculty directors in the School of Public Service & Health. You can contact him at Mark.Bond(at)mycampus.apus.edu.

References

Chae, M. H., & Boyle, D. J. (2013). Police suicide: Prevalence, risk, and protective factors. Policing, 36(1), 91-118. doi:10.1108/13639511311302498

Larned, J. G., M.A. (2010). Understanding police suicide. Forensic Examiner, 19(3), 64-71,125. Retrieved from ProQuest database.

Mittal, D., Drummond, K. L., Blevins, D., Curran, G., Corrigan, P., & Sullivan, G. (2013). Stigma associated with PTSD: Perceptions of treatment seeking combat veterans. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 36(2), 86-92. doi:10.1037/h0094976

O’Hara, A. F., Violanti, J. M., Levenson, Jr., R. L., & Clark, Sr., R. G. (2013). National police suicide estimates: Web surveillance study III. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience, 15(1), 31-38. Retrieved from http://www.omicsonline.com/open-access/currentissue-international-journal-of-emergency-mental-health-and-human-resilience.pdf

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