Officers deal with human distress of all kinds
We honored fallen police officers during National Police Week last month. It’s only fitting to recognize those who have given the ultimate sacrifice to protect others.
However, there appears to be yet a different and potentially more dangerous crisis facing our law enforcement warriors: police suicide.
It came as somewhat of a surprise to me in doing some research that more officers die of suicide than die of shootings and traffic crashes combined. A new study released in April found that in 2017, 140 police officers committed suicide while 129 officers died in the line of duty. It’s a jarring statistic that continues to plague our public safety heroes but garners little attention.
The study found that while suicide has been an ingrained issue for years, very little has been done to address it even though first responders have PTSD and depression at t level five times that of civilians.
“It’s really shocking, and part of what’s interesting is that line-of-duty deaths are covered so widely by the press but suicides are not, and it’s because of the level of secrecy around these deaths, which really shows the stigmas,” said Miriam Heyman, one of the co-authors of the study.
She said less than 5 percent of police agencies have suicide-prevention programs in place. “It’s something first responders are ashamed to talk about and address, which is having a deadly result,” Heyman said.
It’s a problem that cries out for answers and remedies, but too many departments are reluctant to admit it exists, much less implement programs to address it.
Based on my 20 years of experience as a police officer, I believe that work-related stress and depression are far more prevalent in police work than anyone cares to admit. Police work can be grueling, and one of the most toxic, caustic career fields in the world.
A few years ago a well-liked police lieutenant at a department I worked for in Iowa suddenly took his life and left behind a beautiful family. He had been struggling with depression due to stress and lack of sleep for only a few months. His wife has since reached out to assist in suicide prevention.
Police work is grueling. Officers deal with death and destruction on a regular basis no matter what size community or area they serve. Human distress comes at them in all forms during the course of their duty.
During my police career, I handled many situations that still haunt me to this day. Seeing a woman who jumped off a bridge and into the path of an 18-wheeler traveling at 65 mph is one of the most gruesome scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Or how about a teenager dressed in a suit and hanging from a tree in his backyard just a day before Thanksgiving? Then there was a motorist stabbed in the neck with blood gushing out of his neck uncontrollably.
Despite all the gory scenes I’ve dealt with, perhaps the hardest for me was responding to a motor vehicle crash just minutes before school only to find my son’s best friend dead behind the wheel. I then had to turn around and notify her parents that their lovely daughter would never be coming home again. And if that wasn’t enough, I had to find my son in school and deliver the horrifying news to him. This happened just a couple weeks before Christmas.
Through it all, I had a department that did very little for me. (By the way, the department is not in this immediate area.) Oh sure, they offered a little debriefing after some of the initial events, but that’s as far as it went. Nothing more. The expectation is to suck it up and get back out on the road to handle the next crisis. And, when I needed them most, they turned on me like the Bubonic plague.
Tears come to my eyes just thinking about many of these situations, even though most of them have happened years ago, a few even as long as 20 years ago. Don’t think for a moment that situations like these don’t take a toll on me or other public safety heroes trying to keep our communities safe.
Earlier this month we learned about a Kasson police officer who attempted to take his life. He’s still clinging to life at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester. It’s unknown what led to this unfortunate situation, but it’s likely the job has taken a toll on him in some way.
The study found there is not enough conversation about mental health within police departments. “Silence can be deadly, because it is interpreted as a lack of acceptance and thus morphs into a barrier that prevents first responders from accessing potentially life-saving mental health services,” the study says.
Police officers need our support, and we need to demand that police agencies go in hot pursuit of taking care of their own for the well-being of the individual officer, their family and the greater community.