Are we complicit in police suicide?
Officers train together to manage violence, discuss the latest tactics and have a commitment to ensure they all go home, but rarely discuss their mental health
By Jeff McGill and Tina Jaeckle
Police culture can be a powerful tool. It socializes us, it establishes our norms and it bonds us to a brotherhood of men and women who would risk their lives for each other. There is also a darker side to police culture and it is one that we need to address and work together to change. An unhealthy environment has been created in law enforcement in which we do not discuss trauma, stress or coping mechanisms.
We know trauma and stress have a detrimental effect on officers’ lives and increase the potential for suicide. We also know that there are preventative steps, training and follow-up actions that can mitigate harm caused by stressors. Unfortunately, despite how action oriented the law enforcement culture is, we have been slow to acknowledge the issue and address the problem as suicide remains a leading killer of law enforcement officers each year.
Are we doing what we can to limit the long-term effects of stress and trauma? The police supervisor is often held to a standard that he or she should have known something was going to occur. Should it be any different with a police suicide?
Cumulative, compounded stress
While critical incident or post-traumatic stress can have a potential to impact the officers involved, the most dangerous stress is cumulative in nature. Cumulative stress is the result of compounding pressure from years of service and challenging experiences. Cumulative stress is likely to increase as officers are doing more with less, have little down time to process difficult calls and lack tools for effective stress management. Stress can be managed and law enforcement suicide can be reduced through proactive leadership and commitment to helping officers throughout their career.
It is imperative to provide a strong foundation for officers from the beginning so that resiliency becomes central in their long-term survival. Officers who are beginning their career are primed to be taught effective skills for managing the stressors of law enforcement work. The easiest place to start this training is in the police academy. Curriculum that includes specific and consistent instruction on recognizing, mitigating and responding to stress could be easily inserted into the coursework. Seasoned officers need consistent refresher training and an environment that works to ensure the psychological health of employees is a priority.
Suicide can occur without warning or any chance to intervene. But it is estimated that up to 75 percent of people exhibit warning signs before they die by suicide.
Many of us do not know what to say or how to respond if we notice warning signs. There is an unwritten and unspoken expectation that as protectors, strength is demanded and sensitivity discouraged. Ironically, we are often more comfortable heading into a room with each other while bullets are flying than we are asking if everything is OK.
Our comfort comes from training together to manage violence, discussing the latest tactics and having a commitment to ensure we all go home. In the area of mental health, the commitment to ensure everyone goes home is still present, but we rarely discuss mental health with our peers.
So, what can be done?
Everyone in a law enforcement agency is responsible for the identification and prevention of law enforcement suicide. When we deflect this responsibility to employee assistance programs (EAP) and outside mental health providers, we sometimes lose a valuable opportunity to recognize, identify and assist with appropriate interventions for fellow officers.
While EAP is an important part of the continuum of care, an officer’s behavior can be detected early in the process by peers and supervisors. Agencies must proactively train their employees to be aware of potential signs and benefits of early interventions.
Roughly two percent of all policing agencies have a formalized suicide prevention program in the U.S. It is essential that police leaders take a stand to prevent law enforcement suicide, educate their employees, offer a safe place for help by law enforcement friendly counselors, create critical incident stress management teams and offer on-going training to officers throughout their career. By not taking these steps, we become complicit in police suicide.
About Tina Jaeckle
Dr. Tina Jaeckle serves as an Associate Professor and Director of the Criminology Program at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. Dr. Jaeckle has presented locally and nationally on issues of crisis/critical incidents, police involved shootings and line of duty death, suicide (law enforcement), emotional survival for first responders, child abuse/homicide, domestic violence, mental illness and high-conflict families. Dr. Jaeckle has extensive experience in the development, coordination and training of law enforcement critical incident teams and peer support programs. She is board certified in emergency crisis response and bereavement trauma through the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress; certified in force science analysis through the Force Science Institute; a member of American Board of Critical Incident Professionals and the International College of Behavioral Sciences; A Certified Forensic Consultant and Master of Forensic Social Work with the American College of Forensic Examiners; a Fellow with the National Center for Crisis Management; a former visiting professor at the FBI Academy (Behavioral Science Unit/National Academy) in Quantico,Virginia and completed a fellowship as the FBI’s Futurist (Scholar) in Residence (FBI Academy) for the 2008-2009 year; and was selected for the 2010 Nova Southeastern University’s Distinguished Alumni Award for the Criminal Justice Institute.