It’s Okay to Not Be Okay: Ending the Stigma Related to Officer Mental Health
By Kim Colegrove, contributor to In Public Safety
I teach resilience, self-care, and mindfulness to first responders. I did not choose this career path, but it began after my husband, David, took his own life in 2014. He shot himself on Thanksgiving weekend, just a few weeks after he retired from a 30-year law enforcement career. That devastating event led me on a journey of discovery about police stress, trauma, secondary trauma, and suicide that has changed my professional trajectory.
[Read Kim’s previous article: My Husband’s Suicide: Recognizing Predictors of Police Suicide]
Officers Are Choosing Death in Record Numbers
For the third year in a row, police suicides outnumbered line-of-duty deaths, according to the nonprofit organization Blue H.E.L.P. In 2018, 144 officers died in line-of-duty deaths, and 159 to suicide, making suicide the greatest single cause of death in law enforcement.
Why are so many law enforcement officers taking their own lives? I believe the answer is blatantly obvious and it’s time we address it: mental health stigma.
There has long been a stigma attached to mental health issues in policing. Often, if law enforcement officers are brave (or desperate) enough to speak up about mental and emotional difficulties, they are labeled as “weak,” “unstable,” or “incompetent.” Instead of receiving help, they might be demoted—or fired. Stigma has caused officers to suffer in silence, forced to pretend they’re okay when they’re not.
Healing the Wounds Nobody Can See
The average citizen has no idea what officers see, hear, and endure. They regularly respond to situations involving violence, abuse, neglect, victimization, and death. Even though such horrific things don’t happen to them directly, responding to such situations can still have a devastating impact. This type of trauma is known as secondary, or vicarious, trauma and it’s something that officers often experience many times throughout their career.
For example, officers regularly receive “infant not breathing” calls and are the first to arrive on scene at fatal car accidents. They discuss horrific crimes against children with their co-workers and write reports about brutal domestic violence. They’re dispatched to attempted and completed suicides and they sometimes have to knock on a door and tell a mother her child is dead. The sights, sounds, and smells from these experiences leave imprints on the psyche of every officer who encounters them. Memories and images can continue to harm them after the event is over and very often these invisible wounds do not heal on their own.
Unfortunately, the stigma and culture of law enforcement prevents many officers from asking for help when they experience mental and emotional pain. A “suck it up, buttercup” mentality pervades, with the overriding message being: “If you can’t handle this job, there’s the door.”
But consider this: If officers are physically wounded in the line of duty, they are given time and resources to heal. All manner of support is available, and they won’t be expected to return to work until they are rehabilitated and able to perform their normal duties. So why are there are far fewer resources available to officers who are suffering from mental or emotional wounds?
In most cases, officers can heal with support. They must be given support to heal the underlying causes of these invisible wounds and provided with resources to recover. Secondary trauma can cause great mental distress and emotional pain, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are mentally ill or incapable of doing their job. Nor should it be assumed that these issues are permanent or that they can’t be fixed. They can.
[Download this free, full-length magazine: Rebuilding Officer Resiliency: A Treatment Guide]
Law enforcement leaders must work to end the stigma and give officers the chance to talk openly and honestly about their mental and emotional well-being. Openness must become the norm in law enforcement because too many officers are dying and too many are suffering. For every one who takes his or her own life, there are thousands of others on a similar path, suffering with post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts.
Turning a Mess into a Message
At the time of my husband’s death, I was teaching mindfulness in corporate settings. Working with first responders was something I had never seriously considered. But several months after my husband’s suicide, I started to think about the people who responded to the 911 call that night.
I remembered the uniformed officer standing on my front porch, and the detective whose job it was to give me the news. I thought about the off-duty firefighter who heard the shot, found my husband in his truck, and made the call. I thought about all the people who were dispatched and had to investigate that horrific scene. And it occurred to me that they were all going through what my husband had gone through.
David was a police officer for eight years before becoming a federal agent. I believe those years in a patrol car contributed hugely to his mental and emotional suffering. He was a crime scene investigator for a while and witnessed heinous things he wouldn’t talk about. He responded to countless fatality accidents and domestic calls involving children. And he survived life-threatening incidents that left him constantly hypervigilant.
A couple of years ago, when I was new to working with first responders, a police sergeant called and asked if I would like some feedback on my class. I was not prepared for what he had to say.
He told me he could feel me holding back while telling the story of my husband’s struggles and suicide. He suggested I be more forthcoming and direct. And then he dropped a bomb. He estimated that of the 30 or so people in the class he attended, a minimum of 10 people have thought about, are thinking about, or will think about suicide at some point in their career.
I was stunned. He went on to assert that my story had the power to impact people, and maybe even save lives, but only if I was willing to be honest.
So that’s what I’m doing. All day, every day, I am working to erase the stigma and raise awareness about first responder stress, trauma, and suicide. I’m offering resilience training and mindfulness classes to help first responders learn to thrive and survive. In my classes, I tell the truth. I speak the difficult words. I share the story of my husband’s battle with mental and emotional troubles and how his death impacted everyone who knew him.
I believe that if my husband had support for the mental anguish and emotional devastation of police work, he would have developed coping skills to help him navigate retirement and transition into a healthy, peaceful life as a civilian. A life he deserved.
It is time for the law enforcement culture to eradicate the stigma around mental and emotional issues and face its own reality: Your brothers and sisters in blue are suffering and dying by their own hands because you refuse to recognize their nonphysical wounds—their mental and emotional pain.
About the Author: Kim Colegrove has more than 40 years of experience meditating and has been teaching mindfulness in corporate settings since 2011. Her corporate clients include Garmin International, The National Court Reporters Association, The Department of Veterans Affairs, United Way and others. In 2014, Kim lost her husband, Special Agent David Colegrove, to suicide. As a result of that devastating loss, she founded The PauseFirst Project, and has turned her attention to bringing relief and resilience to first responders through mindfulness training. To contact her, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.
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