As a kid, I remember the puzzle pictures
of trees or landscapes that would challenge us to see how many hidden cats or other animals we could find. At first, we would see a couple of the more obvious, but the rest would escape us. It was only by looking and looking that we would begin to see the heretofore hidden images of what we could
not see before. Each time, we were surprised to realize that they had all been right
there before our eyes from the beginning.
So it is, sometimes, in research. For almost four years, now, our organization has been struggling with the perplexing question of, “Can
the stresses and traumas of police work lead to an officer’s suicide?” To
us, it’s an idiotic question to have to deal with, as it is to most clinicians familiar with the diagnostic criteria
for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the relationship of depression to PTSD and the dynamics of suicide. The terrors and horrors to which so many officers are subjected, daily, for 20 and 30 years are such fertile
turf for trauma in the healthiest of officers that the answer should be obvious.
But it’s not obvious—not to many. To listen to some groups, it may be possible enough for an officer to experience “stress.” Additionally, they will admit, an officer just might even “catch PTSD” on the
job. Is it possible, however, for that PTSD to lead to suicide? Never! Police suicides, they will tell you, are caused by mean wives,
by overcharging one’s credit cards, or simply by being a “bad officer.” If
none of these apply, it’s just a shock and a mystery to be forgotten—as quickly as possible.
One is forced to ask, if no suicides
are caused by police work, why do police departments have suicide prevention programs!
We tracked almost 300 police suicides
in the United States during 2008/2009. Not a single one was attributed by a department to PTSD or the stress/trauma of the
job. Wives were blamed, misbehaviors were blamed and “Gosh-no-one-knows”
became a favorite.
An officer who dies falling from a ladder
while changing a light bulb in the station receives a motorcade, a full-honors funeral and his name inscribed on the wall
of heroes. On the other hand, the officer who has been nearly killed, horrifically
traumatized by a near-death experience(s) or some other dark and ghastly event(s) will be shamed for finally succumbing to
the PTSD that resulted from those events, will be buried in near secret, and then forgotten.
On Police Memorial Day, his wife and children will be allowed to watch from outside the gate as the first officer
So what does this have to with a childhood
puzzle and finding cats in a tree?
Table 9 is the last set of data included
in the famous Aamodt-Stalnaker study of police suicides in 1999. This is a study some love and others love to hate. Some use it to argue
that police suicides are high; others that police suicides are low. One of the flaws in the
study was in the interpretation of data that led the researchers to conclude that the police suicide rate for officers age
25 - 54 is lower than a comparable group of white males in the general populace (they totally overlooked the fact that
officers begin at the starting line certified as "healthy" by psychological screening, whereas the general populace is not
and includes the criminally insane, mentally ill, and a wide sampling of others).
Nonetheless, data is data and, while theirs was not the best, some parts were sound and did
reveal some things worthy of note. Herein lies the rub.
people have stopped to dwell on the very end of the study, where sits the very lonely Table 9—“The Reasons
for Police Suicides.” Perhaps this is because (as always) “relationships”
are given as the leading cause of police suicides (the “family argument the night before,” the wicked spouse who
left the loving officer). “Legal Problems” are given next, although no
one knows what that means—if they are problems in the course of employment or criminal activity or a dispute with the
as many times as I have looked at this puzzle tree of Table 9 for the cats, I’ve missed something very obvious—that
if there is any value to the Aamodt-Stalnaker report, it is not about the rate of police suicides or whether that rate
is high or low. Not at all.
the Aamodt-Stalnaker study clearly shows is what many police departments continue to ignore--that 11 to 31 percent of police
suicides are directly attributable to stress related police work.
TABLE 9. Reasons for Police Suicides