Addressing Mental Wellness and Police Suicides: A Lifelong Commitment
A new report issued in January found that suicide was once again the leading cause of police deaths in 2012. However, the good news is that police suicides fell considerably in 2012.
The National Study of Police Suicides (NSOPS) reported that 126 police officers were killed by their own hand, down 14 percent from 143 suicides in 2009 (the last time this survey was conducted). However, these figures remain too high and police agencies must be more proactive at addressing police mental wellness, said Ron Clark, Sergeant (Ret.) of the Connecticut State Police, one of the lead researchers of this study.
Clark spent 23 years with Connecticut State Police, but has been involved in many different aspects of law enforcement for more than 50 years. In addition to being an officer and a commanding officer, he was also a counselor as well as an academy instructor.
“Everything is focused on suicide but that is not the real issue. The real issue is mental wellness of officers,” he said. “It’s easy for a Chief to talk about suicide, because it will probably never happen in his department, but it’s hard to talk about mental wellness for officers because that means you have to have a plan.”
Clark is a member of The Badge of Life Police Mental Health organization, a nonprofit group that aims to increase awareness about police stress, trauma and suicide issues. He said preliminary findings for 2012 (the full report will be issued in April), found that there was a demographic shift in police suicides as well. The median age increased from 38 in 2009 to 42 in 2012. Also, the average number of years on the job went from 12 years to 16 years.
For the first time this year, The Badge of Life sent a short questionnaire to every department that experienced a suicide in an attempt to gather more data for the study. Remarkably, they received about 39 percent of these questionnaires back, which was far more than they expected considering departments’ tendency not to discuss police suicides. Clark said that he had many Chiefs return the survey with personal notes attached. “This shows that something is happening out there, there are cracks in the wall and people are actually beginning to talk about police mental wellness,” he said. As Clark compiles this data, he hopes the final report will give greater insight into causes of police suicide.
After all, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not a new phenomenon, but it has taken a long time for law enforcement agencies to address the subject, he said. While many departments are doing a much better job today than they have in the past to address mental wellness, the process has been slow.
Clark said that many departments need to change their approach to the way they train officers about issues of mental wellness.
“It would be inconceivable to send an officer out without proper training in firearms, why would we send an officer out every day without them being psychologically prepared?” he asked.
Clark said that addressing mental health involves a combination of approaches:
- Employee Assistance Program. While Clark is a major proponent of EAPs, based on his experience, many police officers choose not to use them. There is often an underlying sense of distrust, despite promises of confidentiality, he said.
- Peer-support programs. This is one of the most effective approaches to addressing and dealing with mental wellness, said Clark. When an officer is having a difficult time, peer-support officers can be helpful and supportive to assist a fellow officer through a challenging situation. There is often a great sense of trust of these officers and many departments have formalized that sense of trust with confidentiality agreements built into their policies.
- Education and training. The Academy is the place to start training officers about mental wellness, said Clark. “That’s where their minds are molded and attitudes are established,” he said. Currently there is very little training focused on mental wellness for police in the academy or elsewhere. “A one-hour stress reduction program is not going to cut it,” he said.
The Role of Formal Education
Mark Bond, a 20-year veteran of the police force, agreed that officers need to be better educated about law-enforcement related trauma. During his law enforcement career, Bond was a part of three separate officer-involved shootings.
“When I was involved in my first shooting, I was cleared right away and I wasn’t given any administrative time off. Basically, they bought you a beer and told you that you were a hero. You had to deal with it all on your own and there weren’t any department resources, not even a chaplain to talk to,” he said.
Bond wants to help other police officers be better prepared than he was to cope with such situations. For the past 13 years he has been an assistant professor of criminal justice at American Military University. One of the courses he finds very relevant for current or aspiring police officers is the Stress Management in Law Enforcement course, a concentration requirement for the Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice. This course covers everything from specific stress management techniques for officers to use during an incident to legal procedures officers can expect to go through after an officer-involved shooting.
The course covers the different phases of grief so officers are prepared for the roller coaster of emotions they can expect to feel, including anger and fear. “For everyone the process is different and the techniques they need to get back to their baseline are also different,” he said. Officers need to figure out what stress management techniques work for them and what they need to do to return to their “normal.”
One of the most important elements of the class is an in-depth discussion about the legal proceedings after an officer-involved shooting. “We talk about the departmental and legal processes they’re likely to face,” Bond said. “When you’re caught up in a lawsuit how do you proceed through that landmine and come out fine?” Unfortunately, officers often do not receive enough departmental training on this subject, he said.
Bond said the relevance and importance of this type of course has proved itself time and time again. He has had several former students contact him years after the class telling him they were involved in a shooting and were so grateful that they knew what to expect. “They used the techniques and theories we had talked about in class and they were able to put those into practice to help them work through their issues,” Bond said. “Many reported they were back working after an incident and believed they had recovered faster because they understood what was happening and what resources to seek out.”
Preparing Officers for the Realities of Retirement
Many police officers are not ready for the changes involved with retirement. While many officers expect relaxation and an easier lifestyle, they are often jarred by the reality of leaving the force. “Many officers aren’t prepared for when they retire,” said Clark. Often times, officers will begin experiencing delayed PTSD, remembering things they either forgot or wanted to forget and suddenly they start remembering past traumatic experiences. While there is not much data about suicide rates by police officers after retirement, Clark says he believes it is remarkably high.
In addition to delayed PTSD, when an officer retires they often lose their support networks as well. Police have close-knit social circles with other officers, but often feel isolated from those circles after retirement. Clark said that many officers could benefit from peer mentoring to help them get through the process of retirement.
Mental wellness is an issue that must be addressed throughout an officer’s career and even after they retire. Clark said he will continue working to collect data and build awareness in the law enforcement community about the importance of mental wellness. “It haunts me to think that men and women who devoted their lives to law enforcement are now buried without honor because they committed suicide,” said Clark. That is one of the reasons he continues to advocate mental health wellness to agencies across the country. “This is a call for courageous leaders in law enforcement who are willing to buck the trend and stand up and say it’s time to address mental wellness in law enforcement,” he said.