Psych Services: Here’s a primer on law enforcement suicide prevention

Lisa Garmezy

For police officers, suicide attempts leave no visible injuries. It’s the time when you sat up all night staring at your gun. Or you scared your wife by holding it to your head. Maybe you went up to the roof, looked around, and headed back down, or disregarded the danger on a risky call.

The lack of evidence doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. The IACP estimates there are 25 attempts for each completed police suicide.

The figure appears in the organization’s report of a recent planning conference. “Breaking the Silence: A National Symposium on Law Enforcement Officer Suicide and Mental Health,” released June 5, 2014. It’s a follow-up to the 2008 IACP release of resources for “Preventing Law Enforcement Officer Suicide” used in mandatory training a few years back.

A Change in Culture

The IACP says we have to “move toward a culture of support and understanding” if we want to lower suicide rates. Seeking help for mental health issues must become as routine as seeking help for physical problems. It’s the same battle the military has been fighting, the authors note, pointing out that the US Air Force Suicide Prevention Program reduced suicides by one third.

Unfortunately the chiefs spoke too soon. According to the Washington Post (11/7/14) suicides among active-duty personnel dipped in 2013 by about 19 percent but rose again in 2014. Air Force rates went up with the rest of the Armed Forces.

The same Post story said that at Colorado’s Fort Carson, a mocking sign-up sheet appeared next to a real one for soldiers wanting to see a doctor. Fake reasons were written in, such as “I am thin-skinned” and “I want my mommy.” The joke sends a message: “It’s not okay to ask for help.”

As it is in the military, so it is in the police force. Breaking the Silence says there is a “stigma attached to mental health that prevents both officers from seeking the necessary treatment and leaders from providing it.”

Keeping Watch

The report stresses recognizing the seasons in officers’ lives when suicide may seem to be an option. These include critical incidents, serious illness and the loss of major relationships through death, divorce, infidelity or domestic violence. “High expectations of the profession, followed by perceived futility,” “significant financial strain” and alcohol and drug problems are also identified as precursors.

Officers facing “internal affairs investigations, serious disciplinary actions, unwanted job changes or relationship trauma” should have mental health treatment made available. Increased risk is present for officers who are doing shift work, too.

The suicide warning signs you know are discussed in the report. Indicators include a change in mood, such that a person becomes either more restless and agitated or more depressed and withdrawn. Excessive drinking or risk-taking can be signs. It’s a myth that people who talk about it won’t do it. We have to listen closely to statements such as “I can’t keep going like this.”

Any kind of making final arrangements, such as giving away possessions, is a huge red flag. In a heart-breaking case in an HISD middle school, the child returned his library books and cleaned out his locker.

Taking Action

The IACP website uses the acronym “AID” to teach action steps: ASK the question, INTERVENE immediately and DON’T keep it a secret. First, if in doubt, ask someone if he is thinking of hurting himself. The idea won’t be new—think of the publicity surrounding Robin Williams’ death. Second, intervene by persuading the person to seek immediate help. Last, when it comes to saving a life, a friend tells. Err on the side of involving others.

Hiring the right people to start with reduces officer suicide. The IACP says desirable recruits have a “cool head” and “good impulse and stress control (with) minimal risk behavior.” If Psych. Services turned down your kid, you might stop to think whether that description fits him or her.

The Chiefs Suggest

Conference participants urged all departments to have in place strategies for prevention, intervention, and postvention, that is, handling suicide’s aftermath.

These are their prevention goals:

  1. Get leaders to “unequivocally endorse” the acceptability of getting help.
  2. Hire people with “proven stress management skills.”
  3. “Institutionalize mental wellness and suicide prevention policies” which means movement toward requiring officer participation—as in our recent G.O. 300.02.
  4. Audit mental health providers. Make sure the troops are happy. Have an appropriately trained peer support program—thank you, HOPA.
  5. Promote suicide and wellness awareness. Keep updating tools such as posters.
  6. Train over and over on these topics, with special attention to first-line supervisors.
  7. Train family members repeatedly, too, on signs of emotional trauma and where to get help. Family membership shifts, and no one recalls in a crisis what they heard once, years ago.

As Dr. Paul Quinett said, “Now that we know suicide is preventable, the race is between education and tragedy.” Each year approximately 150 sworn law enforcement officers lose the fight.

Our number at Psych Services is 832-394-1440 and our new Houston Officers Peer Assistance program can be reached at 832-200-3499. You’ll find a reproducible handout on action steps meant for supervisors at www.theiacp.org; search “suicide.” The full text of “Breaking the Silence” is available at www.theiacp.org/preventing-law-Enforcement-officer-suicide.