POLICE DEATHS AND MENTAL HEALTH

A Study of Police Suicide in 2008-2016
Dealing with a Suicidal Police Officer
Police Suicide - What It ISN'T
Master Police Coaches - Building a Better Cop
PTSD - The "Hidden Injury"
Police Suicide - Making a Difference
The Importance of Therapy
Police Suicide - the SOLUTIONS
Interview with the BOL Chairman
So-Called "Helpers"
A MATTER OF PUBLIC TRUST
2016 Police Suicide Study
Annual Mental Health Checks
Stigma - The Human Stain
2016 Police Suicides: the NSOPS Study
Police Stress vs Trauma--a difference?
Does PTSD Cause Violence? from the Badge of Life
A New Police Suicide Prevention Program for the 21st Century
Police Suicide, Just a Bad Choice?
Chiefs Lead the Way
"Bring a Buddy"

 

Andy O’Hara,

Founder, Badge of Life

California Highway Patrol (Ret.)

 

Is there a relationship between mental health and officers being killed by gunfire?

 

 

During 2011, 164 police officers died in the line of duty.  Of these, 65 died from gunshots.  47 in vehicle accidents, seven were struck by other vehicles, and 13 died from vehicular assaults.

 

The “official” causes are clear.  After all, investigators go to the scene, put up their yellow tape, gather their evidence, do their interviews, and come to their conclusions.  The officers acted bravely.  Perhaps there was something they could have done better.  Perhaps some defensive tactic is identified that can be emphasized in future training.  Attention might be drawn to certain driving skills or other precautionary measures.  In squad briefings, the message will be “alertness.” 

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Without the emotional training and support our police officers deserve, we are sending them from one dangerous situation to another and leaving them vulnerable to gunmen,  assailants,  vehicle accidents, falls and countless other accidents.  We are, in essence, putting them directly in harm’s way without giving them the most important tools they need to protect themselves!

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“Be careful out there,” roll call sergeants will plead.  “Watch your back—watch your partner’s back!”

The officers in the audience will be a mixed crowd. If this is a department of 100 cops, 15 to 18 of them will already be suffering from the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). About 25 more will be going through a variety of other anxiety disorders that interfere with concentration, cause irritability and restlessness, create tension and stomach problems. These and another 25 are experiencing problems in their relationships at home and some may be facing divorces.

 

Looking further, these 65 officers and an unknown remainder of the 100 are doubtless struggling with sleep disorders brought about by shift work and time in court. Finally, we have the toll taken throughout the squad by substance abuse—not only alcohol, but from easily obtained pain killers for work-related injuries that become addictive.

 

These, then, are the officers sitting in the briefing, numbly listening to the sergeant's admonition, “Be careful out there.”

 

But is it possible that, in spite of the training we've been doing and enhancing for years, we're missing something crucial to keeping our officers alive out on the streets? Is it possible that there's something besides felony stops, powerful weapons, physical prowess, combat simulations, tactical breathing and more fanciful practice ranges that we need to be considering?

 

This is where we bring up the unspeakable and where many of you will stop reading—mental health and how important it is to street survival.

 

It is not considered “nice” or “politic” in law enforcement to suggest that emotional well-being can have a bearing on an officer’s survivability out on the streets. Saying that an officer’s “mental health” is as important as their body armor is not at all welcome in today’s culture. Today’s young police officer is taught that he is invincible and emotionally infallible. He stands above society, a mythic “warrior” protecting the sheep from the wolves. It's about brawn, firepower and withstanding multiple "hits."  Anything less is a sign of weakness. One popular lecturer insists that even senior officers want nothing more than to be in a gun battle before they retire. That’s doubtful, but it’s this kind of thinking that adds to a stigma making officers reluctant to step out of the ranks and seek help when emotional problems do strike.

 

In fact, an officer’s emotional "edge" when faced with danger is the most important survival resource he has. A preoccupied officer in an emergency is easy prey in those first seconds, no matter how many guns and daggers he has planted on his body. History is filled with examples of unarmed people who have survived attacks and pursuits because they kept a clear mind and used it to its most creative potential. Unfortunately, however, the typical officer has only seconds to react—but it is in these few seconds that lack of clarity can be deadly—walking up on a car with a mind distracted by anxiety, job dissatisfaction, concerns over a divorce and financial worries is courting disaster.

 

This applies equally to traffic stops, suspect encounters, family disputes, high speed driving, directing traffic, laying out spike strips, flying an aircraft and the many more tasks required of an officer.  "The edge" is crucial, regardless of how many tools the cop may have on his belt.

 

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Perhaps you’re among those who deny that this is a problem. You have a lot of company.  After all, when the officer’s body has been removed, the evidence officer will be unable to find “Insomnia” on the ground and bottle it as evidence for later examination. Search as they might, no team will be able to locate “Difficulty concentrating” on the pavement, and no one will be able to photograph it.

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It’s easy to say, “Just clear your mind before you walk up on that car.” “Focus!” Bear in mind, however, that stress is subtle and erodes at alertness in ways that are not always obvious. We often “think” we are focused when, in fact, a part of our mind is preoccupied with other issues. Complicating this is the fact that many of these issues are related to the job—it could be a trauma or series of traumatic events that occurred during many years of a law enforcement career. Much as police administrators deny that “the job” can cause stress, anxiety and even PTSD, it’s a fact—so much so that "LOSING THE EDGE" can get us killed when we’re carrying the symptoms around and exposing ourselves to danger at the same time.

 

Let's start with some of the symptoms that commonly affect officers.

 

ANXIETY: As you read this list, think about how any three or four of these symptoms might affect YOUR officers’ alertness and/or judgment as they prepare to stop a motorist on a dark street:

1. Chest pain

2. Fatigue

3. Underlying anxiety, apprehension, or fear

4. Clumsiness

5. Difficulty thinking, speaking, forming thoughts, following conversations

6. Excess of energy

7. Heart palpitations

8. Tremors/jitters/shakes

9. Suddenly snapping

10. Difficulty falling or staying asleep

11. Nightmares, bad dreams

12. The feeling of being under pressure all the time

13. Nausea

14. Neck, back, shoulder pain, tightness/stiffness

15. No energy, feeling lethargic

16. Startle easily

17. A heightened fear of what people think of you

18. Constant feeling of being overwhelmed.

19. Fears about irrational things, objects, circumstances, or situations

20.  Dizziness or light-headedness

21. Frequent headaches, migraine headaches

22. Repetitive thinking or incessant ‘mind chatter’

23. Short-term learning impairment

24. Short-term memory impairment


POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER: Now let's look at the 15 to 18 officers in your squad who, without knowing it, are still working and suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s important that you understand the baggage they carry with them as they make that “routine” traffic stop.

      1. Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event that traumatized them.

2. Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again)

3. Nightmares or, worse, “night terrors” (that awaken you screaming and fighting)

4. Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma

5. Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating)

6. Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma

7. Loss of interest in activities and life in general

8. Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb

9. Depression and hopelessness

10. Suicidal thoughts and feelings

11. Insomnia

12. Irritability or outbursts of anger

13. Difficulty concentrating

14. Hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”)

15. Feeling jumpy and easily startled

16. Guilt, shame, or self-blame

17. Feelings of mistrust and betrayal

18. Feeling alienated and alone


Next, let’s send these officers out on the beat, alone, with these things stirring around inside. Go ahead—after all, you’ve been doing it anyway! Most of the time, luck will be on his (and your) side. Hopefully, it will prove to be a “routine” stop and the officer will survive.

But what if it’s not a “routine” stop? What if this is an armed motorist? Will clumsiness make a difference? Lack of sleep? Difficulty concentrating? The effects of too much drinking the night before? Or will it make a difference that a corner of the officer’s mind is still at home, arguing with his spouse?

DENIAL—A RIVER IN EGYPT?

Perhaps you’re among those in law enforcement who deny that any of this is even a problem. You have a lot of company.  After all, when the officer’s body has been removed, the evidence officer will be unable to find “Insomnia” on the ground and bottle it as evidence for later examination. Search as they might, no team will be able to locate “Difficulty concentrating” on the pavement, and no one will be able to photograph it.

Back at the station, however, everyone will be able to pull out the files showing that the deceased was current at the target range and that he had been certified in techniques of arrest.

WHERE FROM HERE?

“Mental health” has always been an uncomfortable topic in law enforcement. We’re afraid it means we’re “mentally unhealthy.” WE HAVE TO QUIT BEING AFRAID OF WORDS and start being concerned about the welfare of our officers.

“Mental health” simply means a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community." Now, we recognize that the stresses of law enforcement far exceed what is usually considered “normal,” and that’s why this article is important. We are abandoning our responsibilities if we hire police officers and send them out to maintain their mental health on their own. They need additional help, given the fact that they work in the most toxic career field on the face of the earth.

Without the emotional training and support our police officers deserve, we are sending them from one dangerous situation to another and leaving them vulnerable to gunmen, to assailants, to vehicle accidents, falls and countless other accidents! We are, in essence, putting them directly in harm’s way without giving them the tools they need to protect themselves!

The problem is, we don’t make this assistance available to them. We send them out into the streets for ten, twenty and even thirty years, facing the most horrific abuses, and are “surprised” when they begin to flounder. Then what do we do? When they are at the point of desperation, we go to them with lame statements like, “It takes courage to ask for help.”

Duh. Our "suicide prevention" programs have failed for that very reason.

No, it takes courage to talk to your troops long before they need help and tell them how to take care of themselves, emotionally—so they can be safe on the streets, so they can have a loving home, so they can be happy within themselves, and so they can have a long and healthy retirement.

This means programs that matter—annual training, therapy visits every year with their own therapist (if they wish), effective peer support programs, and management support.

For more specifics on this kind of program, visit Badge of Life’s free Emotional Self Care Training Program at http://www.policesuicidestudy.com/id5.html

HAVING THE EDGE: Law enforcement is the most toxic career field, emotionally, in the world. Buying bigger guns, putting in more intensive combat ranges and purchasing a tank for your department are all fine ideas, but they aren’t nearly as important as sending your officers out into the field in prime condition, psychologically. An emotionally healthy cop, at home and on the job, is an alive cop. We can make sure of that by providing good mental health programs that will keep them alert and on the defense more than ever before. It's called "giving them the edge."

If you want to see a difference in the annual death toll for police officers, quit counting and lamenting.

Dare to do something new.

 


Return to Badge of Life

 
 
 
 
 

Line of duty deaths: Officer Down Memorial Page Jan 2012 http://www.odmp.org/search/yearBureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.

Shift Work May be Hazardous to Your health, Violanti j. 2010 http://www.jimstonjournal.com/id136.html

Tired Cops: The Prevalence andPotential Consequences of Police Fatigue, Bryan Vila and Dennis Jay Kenney, 2002

Code 9 Project, John Violanti, http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1419004068/code-9-officer-needs-assistance-the-documentary

On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War (2004) (ISBN 0-9649205-1-4), David Grossman

Night Beat, Overtime and a Disrupted Sleep Pattern Can Harm Officers' Health Release Date: November 17, 2009 by the University of NY at Buffalo News Center

World Health Organization (2005). Promoting Mental Health: Concepts, Emerging evidence, Practice: A report of the World Health Organization, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse in collaboration with the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation and the University of Melbourne. World Health Organization. Geneva.

Life and Death of Law Enforcement, Violanti, http://www.careforthetroops.org/articles/Article-20090617%20The%20life%20and%20death%20of%20law%20enforcement

police stress managment police suicide how many officers police mental health police stress ptsd trauma badge of life mental health check law enforcement emotional self care statistics officer suicide police percent peer support training therapy counseling police suicides study studies NSOPS national numbers rate rates percent EAP employee assistance posttraumatic stress disorder danger stigma national memorial NLEOMF suicides among police officers deaths line of duty