The idea of suicide as a solution to pain, frustration or emotional emptiness is common. Even just having the thought in the first place is disconcerting, but most people who think about taking their lives never act on it. Thinking about suicide — having the momentary flash — is common.
It doesn’t make you weak. It means you are human and honest, and it usually just means in that moment — and in that moment alone — a person wants to escape emotional pain that feels too overbearing to navigate. Intense emotions can be terrifying or overwhelming and, sometimes, a flashing thought of annihilation seems like the only answer.
It is true fight or flight in action, but with the threat coming from an internal source rather than an external one.
Talking It Through
The unfortunate truth is that admitting — even to ourselves — such occasional thoughts still carries a heavy stigma. We fear being thought crazy or weak, that others will see us as untrustworthy, or that we’ll lose respect and responsibility. As cops, how many of you would offhandedly mention to a supervisor or colleague that sometimes, when you are emotionally worn out and your defenses are low, the thought of “what if I wasn’t here anymore, would that be so bad?” or “no one would really miss me for long, so why not just check out for good?”
To bring up such a fantasy — and that’s really what those flashes usually are — would very likely alarm your confessor and bring unwelcome attention and consequences upon yourself. And that’s too bad, because the stigma is undeserved and serves only to keep the reality of depression among law enforcement officers in the dark. Our inability to talk about such thoughts — and how prevalent depression and mood disorders are — among those who serve and protect can be a deadly taboo.
Understanding how common such thoughts are, and that most who occasionally experience them will never act on them, opens the door to discussing when the stressors become too much, the thoughts are more than transient fantasies, and suicide becomes a very real threat.
Law enforcement officers are not immune to the social and biological factors that lead to any of the depressive disorders, and a certain percentage will try to complete suicide. There may not be a higher rate of depression among cops — and trying to statistically measure such data is nearly impossible — but when they do decide to kill themselves, they seem much more decisive and effective than most non-LEOs.
Dark Places, Darker Feelings
Consider that LEOs are screened for and selected in part because of their decisiveness, and they have greater access to firearms than most people. But we should also consider the possibility there just might be something about the profession of law enforcement, or the people who enter it, that may increase the likelihood of depressive disorders.
The shift work, long and unpredictable hours, and working weekends and holidays can lead to isolation from family, friends and outside social supports. Officers can develop poor sleeping and eating habits and are exposed to increased and repeated stress. Over time, the subtle physical changes these seemingly minor physiological disturbances introduce can upset the delicate biological balances regulating mental health. There is a growing body of research indicating the law enforcement lifestyle can be detrimental on multiple levels.
Cops have a front-row seat to multiple human dramas that, while frequently fascinating, grind the idealism right out of young officers, often allowing a fatalistic cynicism to grow in its place. When all of these pressures (perhaps helping trigger a genetic predisposition) become too much and depression sets in, there is fear associated with even mentioning that things are not going well emotionally.
A lot of police officers believe that mentioning they are depressed, burned out, or in need of professional help might lead their bosses and colleagues to question their fitness for the job. They fear losing a livelihood they love or that, even if they try to seek help in confidence, they will be discovered. These fears compound the depression. It’s no wonder so many cops hide — and hide from — their darkest feelings.
Knowing About Depression
It’s hard to know the exact number of police officers who take their own lives every year, but somewhere in the neighborhood of two to three times the number will die by their own hand than be killed in the line of duty. It is estimated there may be 300 and 450 law enforcement suicides annually.
Some researchers even suspect these numbers are low, as there are indications some suicides are deliberately classified as accidental deaths or otherwise unreported. Still others who would never overtly take their own lives whittle away at them with alcohol, drugs, unhealthy habits, or risky behavior, or otherwise tear down their worlds around them. Depression exacts a heavy toll on those who serve and protect.
The good news is depression is easily diagnosed and highly treatable, and patient confidentiality laws and the codes of ethics followed by licensed mental health practitioners keep diagnoses and treatment private. Being aware of and honest about your feelings is key, along with knowing when to seek help.
A few of the most common and recognizable signs are:
• Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day
• Diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities you normally enjoy
• Insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day
• Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day
• Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide
• Noticeable irritability and being easily frustrated
• Feeling overwhelmed and with increased anxiety
One of the simplest diagnostic tools we can use is a single, pointed question:
“Are you having more bad days than good?
It cuts right to the chase, and allows me to begin exploring why the answer might be “Yes.”
With the proper treatment and interventions, most patients will find its symptoms of depression can be diminished or eliminated altogether. The course of treatment may be different for each patient, but skilled mental health professionals are adept at finding the right plan for each individual.
October has been Depression Awareness Month. Hopefully, as the month draws to a close, this column has helped you to understand depression, thoughts of suicide, and getting help when you need it.
If you or someone you care about suffers from depression, know there is hope. Overcoming depression can seem daunting, but not nearly as never overcoming it.
Stay safe, both physically and emotionally.