Law enforcement officers (LEOs) risk their lives and their safety to protect our communities on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the mental health support for those who serve and protect often fails them, particularly in police suicide prevention. A recent study even puts police officers at the highest risk of suicide of any occupation, and according to the Ruderman Family Foundation, officers are five times more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder and depression than civilians.
Police Mental Health Statistics
According to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit organization that has been collecting police suicide statistics since 2016, police suicides in 2019 reached a staggering number of 239. In comparison to the 89 officer deaths that were either felonious or accidental, this shows a very stark and devastating reality about police mental health statistics. A study performed in 2019 also revealed that out of 434 police officers surveyed, 12% had a lifetime mental health diagnosis and 26% reported current symptoms of mental illness. Of these officers, only 17% had sought mental health care services.
Causes for the Police and Mental Health Dilemma
Police officers face a great deal of trauma on a day-to-day basis. Constant exposure to physical harm such as life-threatening situations and violence, combined with the horrors of other occurrences like domestic abuse, suicide, and murder, can cause the development of stress, anxiety and depression. On average, officers will witness 188 ‘critical incidents’ over the course of their career.
These recurring traumas greatly affect overall mental health. They can cause PTSD, as well as feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, and inability to cope with future occurrences. They can also affect sleep, create financial strain, and bring on substance use, all of which have been known as factors for suicide. Exacerbation of common law enforcement stigma often prevents officers struggling with these issues from finding proper help. LEOs often view the act of seeking mental health as a weakness, or as something associated with shame and career setbacks.
Seeing the Signs Regarding Police and Mental Health
Critical warning signs that all police officers should look for regarding themselves and fellow law enforcement officials include:
- Talks of suicide, death, or glorifying death
- Direct verbal cues, such as “I wish I were dead”, or “I’m going to end it all”
- Less direct verbal cues, such as “What’s the point of living?” “Who cares if I die?”
- Self-isolation from friends and family
- Giving away of possessions
- Neglect of appearance, hygiene, or overall well-being
- Acting out of character, and recklessness on the job (weapon surrender, aggression)
- Sudden and unexplained improvement in mood after being withdrawn (a very dangerous sign as the officer may have come to terms with their own death and is relieved the end is near)
What Police Departments Can Do to Prevent Suicides
The ability to recognize signs and offer support is key in supporting the prevention of suicide. This includes ‘breaking the silence’, which coincides with the stigma officers face when opening up about their struggles, or seeking mental health services. When more officers are openly discussing their mental health, it helps foster the normalcy of vulnerability and creates more opportunities to receive the proper help needed. Officers are also advised to use law enforcement resources as a way to raise awareness and bring on positive changes. National Law Enforcement Suicide Prevention Awareness Day is just one of the many ways awareness can be raised, and it is a matter of knowing what resources are available.
Police suicide prevention should never be a difficult or awkward topic to discuss, and spreading awareness is the first step to properly finding solutions to the issue. Whether it is through social media, participating in awareness walks, or simply letting others know that they have someone to talk to, mental health awareness for our law enforcement is something anyone can be a part of.
Retreat Behavioral Health has been providing mental health programs, including suicide prevention to individuals struggling with various mental health issues. We are proud to provide mental health services for our law enforcement officials, to raise awareness for police suicide prevention and help those dealing with issues at hand. Contact us today for more information.