Emotional wellness and suicide prevention for police officers

The misconception that traumatic reactions and thoughts of suicide are indicative of mental illness must change


Ballistic vests save lives. Body cameras save careers. To save law enforcement officers’ spirits and souls, a new perspective on emotional wellness and suicide prevention needs to be established, implemented and accepted.

Eliminate Misconceptions

The misconception that traumatic reactions and thoughts of suicide are indicative of mental illness must change.

Our culture fails to acknowledge the realities of emotional suffering. (Photo/Pixabay)
Our culture fails to acknowledge the realities of emotional suffering. (Photo/Pixabay)

A police officer reacting emotionally to a death scene or the use of deadly force is a normal reaction to an abnormal event and shouldn’t be labeled as a mental illness or disorder.

Emotional reactions resulting from the cumulative stress of years of police work do not constitute a disorder. This cumulative stress is an injury to the officer’s soul and belief system and not a mental illness.

The symptoms traditionally labeled as post-traumatic stress disorder are the body’s way of healing from the shock of a traumatic event and not a mental illness.

Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, despair, overwhelming pain (emotional or physical, real or imagined), self-hate, shame and embarrassment, loneliness, revenge, emotional exhaustion, having no control over what is happening in your life, and losing meaning and purpose are crises of the spirit and of the soul.

These suicide causations – reasons people consider, attempt and carry out suicide – are part of the human condition – basic human suffering – not mental illnesses.

Unfortunately, our health care system is driven by diagnostic codes required for insurance payments. Diagnostic codes do not exist for crises of the spirit and soul.

Labeling these causations and post-traumatic stress as mental illnesses propagates stigmas that keep people, especially those in law enforcement and the military, from seeking assistance.

Mental illness diagnoses remain subjective. No definitive test exists that ensures an accurate diagnosis. If one existed, then federal and state laws would require the test before a person could purchase a firearm.

Suicide Ideation

Thinking about suicide doesn’t mean a person is mentally unstable. This phenomenon is known as suicide ideation – thinking about suicide without actuation.

An officer boldly shared that as counterintuitive as it might seem, fantasizing about suicide empowered him. He felt in control. He admits that, at the time, suicide didn’t seem like he would be “harming” himself. Suicide felt like a way out, a way of ending his pain and suffering.

Knowing he had a way of ending his suffering – having control over this aspect of his life – gave him the power he needed to get beyond the crisis.

Mental illnesses exist that can and do lead to suicide. However, seeking the eradication of pain and suffering in itself does not constitute a mental illness. 

Need our pain to be seen

Healing begins when another human being “sees” that an officer is in crisis and bears witness to his/her pain and despair in an atmosphere void of judgment, critique and opinions.

Suicide prevention begins when a person becomes attuned to an officer’s suffering and offers constructive ways to create a new perspective on the life crisis.

Suicide prevention involves avoiding:

1. Giving advice that makes a person suffering feel like a failure;

2. Saying that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. The problem isn’t temporary to the suffering person, otherwise they wouldn’t be thinking about suicide;

3. Platitudes like this will pass, give it time, others have it worse than you, etc.

We want our pain to have meaning. When someone compassionately acknowledges what we are feeling, that in itself can be healing. This is the foundation of talk therapy and peer support.

Many psychologists will accept pay directly from the patient, called private pay, where no insurance is involved and offer discounts and payment plans. This can be a good option for officers who want to seek help, but also want to keep the therapy off the record to avoid the mental illness labels and diagnostic codes that can affect an officer’s career.

The system is flawed

Our culture fails to acknowledge the realities of emotional suffering. We consider it a weakness and challenge people to get over it or move on. Until the misconceptions are eradicated, stigmas and mental illness labels will remain that stand in the way of officers seeking help.

A new perspective on officer emotional wellness and suicide prevention must include therapies like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) that keep officers working and build emotional resiliency and wellbeing.

Reach out to those who are suffering rather than turn a blind’s eye. If you are suffering, reach out to another person.

Compassion heals. 

Asking if a person has considered suicide shows that you recognize that they are in the throes of crisis of spirit and soul. Asking demonstrates your compassion and concern and that you “see” their pain. Initiating a conversation about suicide can help a person understand that how they feel is normal under the circumstances and that asking for professional help is the mature and self-loving thing to do.

The job exposes officers to incidents that cause an emotional scar – an injury – not a mental illness. Officer wellness and suicide prevention needs to be rebuilt on that foundation.

To find an EMDR certified clinician in your area, see http://www.emdr.com/SEARCH/index.php.

Barbara can be reached via email.

Copyright © 2017 Barbara A. Schwartz. All Rights Reserved.

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