I’ve chosen September to write this series on the “second victim”, and chosen this final installment to discuss the worst case of stress and trauma, suicide. September is National Suicide awareness month. Suicide knows no race, sex, age or occupation. It knows no economic bracket or education level. And as you can surmise it effects law enforcement as well.
Each year, on average, there are 130 police suicides. 2016 saw 108 police suicides and although there is no agreement on it, data suggests that for every police suicide, there are at least 1,000 police officers suffering from some symptoms of PTSD. An officer commits suicide every 81 hours. More officers die of suicide than dying of shootings and traffic accidents combined.
In 2016, the average age of a police suicide victim was 42 with 17 years on the job. 87 percent were males and 13 percent were female.
80 percent involved guns.
Legal problems were the leading cause.
22 percent of the suicides were at the rank of sergeant and above.
According to the CDC Occupational Suicide Study - Law Enforcement is the 6th highest profession in terms of suicides.
Too often we confuse “stress” with “trauma.” Stress happens, but trauma happens... to YOU!
Stress is something we expect, it’s part of life, affects us all and good or bad, most times it can be managed with exercise, moderation in alcohol, physical deep breathing, and therapy when required. Trauma, unlike stress, hits you like a bus, all at once or can build over time to become what seems to be an overwhelming weight or burden. It can build over a series of events such as accumulated screams, fights, repeated exposure to disastrous and or violent scenes etc.
Trauma almost always requires professional therapy and perhaps even medications.
We’re all familiar with the trauma that results from critical incidents, headline news sort of events, shootings, deaths etc. Many times compared to that bus hitting you. These are things that everyone is aware of, even the public due to media news and the like. In these situations, help is almost always available, forthcoming and immediate. We have all heard of these events, which almost always include the news that “counselors are available....”. Everyone knows this was a traumatic event and are there to help you. In addition, seeking help is highly encouraged.
Trauma that is cumulative is a bit more deceiving, harder to spot and harder to treat. It sneaks up on you like the old saying, “death of a thousand paper cuts”. It can build over the years and is not immediately recognizable. Likewise, help is not readily apparent and waiting for you like it is after a “major” trauma that results from a single shared event.
It is this built up trauma that I believe effects most police officers in some form or fashion during their career. Things like our current “anti-police” social media environment, protests, rhetoric, slanted news media reports etc., all build up and can add to the stressors and trauma that a police officer feels is directed straight at them! Anti-police rhetoric is not new, think of the riots of the past, including but not limited to the turbulent 60’s, war protests etc. But what I believe makes these current times more dangerous is the social media that current technology permits. In times past you almost had to go looking to be exposed to these events. Today simply turning on the news or signing on to Facebook in this 24/7 world exposes you to an onslaught of public outcry, be in justified or not. Think again about some of the suicide stats for 2016;
The average age of a police suicide victim was 42 with 17 years on the job. Legal problems were the leading cause.
22 percent of the suicides were at the rank of sergeant and above.
42 years old - 17 years on the job - Sergeant and above!! These are not rookies, these are not police officers encountering things for the first time. These are well established veteran officers! What’s going on here?
Throughout this 4 part series as well as in other articles I’ve touched on the impact of these “high-tech” attacks. Of the social justice rushes to judgment, the 140 character twitter attacks, and the slanted news reports. I personally believe not just from my own perspective, but from the LEO brothers and sisters I know, work with and encounter that these are affecting police officers in a way that was previously unknown. Not perhaps the “reason”, being anti-police, but the non-stop broadcasting and promotion of it, the daily exposure to it, and of course any physical threat or personal injury resulting from it.
Think about some of the major stories of 2016 and 2017 involving police events (most shootings) in which the public rush to judgment (read - GUILT) so outpaced the real world and investigation that even when all the facts were known the “public party line” still furthered the lie. For example, “hands up, don’t shoot”, resulting from the Ferguson shooting. This was a complete fabrication from the beginning, proven false yet repeated and used as a rallying cry by not only social justice warriors but sports figures, elected officials, mainstream news anchors, talk show hosts and Hollywood elites. Yet does anyone remember the fact that the officer acted appropriately, was found not guilty of wrongdoing? Yet his career was ended. He did his job, was forced to take the ultimate enforcement action and nearly lost everything as a result.
There was once a time where police officers were not afforded confidentiality in therapy sessions. A time where if an officer who was involved in let's says a shooting, sought professional help, risked those sessions becoming public or part of a legal proceeding. This was unheard of for any other profession. As a result police officers did not, would not seek assistance in dealing with emotional or mental stress and trauma. Fortunately, the laws were changed and the Supreme Court recognized the importance of confidentiality and now LEO sessions are protected in the same manner that all other therapy sessions are. However, the thought that they are not is still somewhat a commonly held belief amongst many officers. This
is propagated by the fact that almost every lawsuit against the police will at some point attempt to gain access to any therapy records regarding the involved officer\s. Although they will attempt it, it is for the most part normally (but not always) denied by the courts. However the fact that those suing tried to get them re-ignites the belief that the records will be made available and causes officers to shy away from professional help even when they need it most.
I want to end this series on this note; Trauma and Stress happen to all of us, every person of every occupational background. Police officers may not be subject to any more or less than anyone else, but I can assure you they are subject to different types of trauma and stress than most people are. There are many coping mechanisms that police officers employ, I’ve touch on some, shared with you my examples, both good and bad, lessons learned and personal growth experience. But in the end failure in learning to cope with the stress and trauma, to find that balance with the real world can and will destroy not only the police officer but their family, loved ones, and friends.
In an occupation that is listed as 6th for suicide, it’s clear that many officers have not yet attained the coping skills necessary and required for not only a successful career but most important a happy and healthy life.
About the Author: Al is a retired police detective from the metro Chicago area. He has been a Law Enforcement Officer at the City, County, State and Federal level in excess of 35 years. His career has taken him all over the nation and the world. Al has been involved in all aspects of criminal investigation as well as general police duties. He is once again on the street as an active LEO for a North Shore community, just North of Chicago in Illinois.