Author: Jessica Terrizzi
Published: Oct 18 2021
Last Updated: Apr 8 2022
(about 5 mins to read)
238 police officers died in 2019 by suicide. 174 died by suicide in 2020. Blue H.E.L.P. reports that, within the last 9 months, 99 officers have died by suicide. 10 of those deaths occurred within the last month. More broadly, police officers are at a higher risk of suicide than civilians, with some studies suggesting that police officers may be 8 times more likely to die by suicide than the general public.
Research shows that potential solutions to this problem exist, but we know that too little is being done to implement them. It is time we confront this epidemic head-on and talk about how to end it.
Police officers may be 8 times more likely to die by suicide than the general public.
Police suicide rates are at an all-time high. And yet The Washington Post reports that these are not considered line of duty deaths. Solving a problem requires us to understand it properly, which means we need to classify these deaths appropriately. Research suggests that police officers are more likely to die by suicide because of factors such as job related stress (PTSD) and problems in their relationships resulting from their career.
Police work is stressful and traumatic. This fact can be brushed off not only by the public, but by police officers themselves. Karrafa and Koch (2015) suggests that being in law enforcement is one of the most stressful careers someone can choose. And, on top of this, the work is not getting any easier. Not only has confidence in the police decreased in recent years, but the job in general is increasingly overwhelming and includes significantly more responsibilities (Demou, 2020).
I had a conversation recently with a retired police officer about the sheer amount of paperwork that has to be completed on the job. While this may seem like a small thing, these issues add up and can become overwhelming, especially when officers are worried about a million other things. I couldn’t help but laugh when the officer I was talking to said, “towards the end of my time on the job, I just missed the old days when I got to hand write my accident reports on a note pad and they automatically carbon copied! Now officers have to worry about filling in every detail perfectly, while having to take the time to do it on a computer.”
Karrafa and Koch (2015) suggests that being in law enforcement is one of the most stressful careers someone can choose.
People are discussing the topic of police suicide more than they have previously, but it is becoming increasingly obvious this isn’t something that officers want to talk about. Instead, many officers either try to deal with their struggles on their own without discussing them, or they try to ignore them through methods such as distraction (Arble & Arnetz, 2017). It makes sense that they don’t want to talk about it, but I think we need to find a way to better facilitate these discussions among police officers.
In my experience, when a police officer dies from suicide, their deaths are often framed as the result of experiences outside of work. “Oh, he had a drinking problem.” “Oh, it was only because he went through a recent divorce.” In doing so, officers are engaging in a defense mechanism known as rationalization (Cushman, 2020); they are trying to justify the undeniable tragedy that is police officer suicide. This behavior is likely due to the compassion fatigue that they experience as a result of the requirements of their jobs.
More generally, mental health is not something that police officers want to talk about. There is a lot of stigma surrounding mental health, especially inside police departments. Not to mention the risks that disclosing this information can pose to one’s job, such as losing one’s gun or being perceived as “weak” by coworkers (Demou et al., 2020). Police officers are expected to maintain their physical health, but it’s hard to recognize that mental health is just as important in facilitating overall well-being. And while physical fitness is a great way for officers to take care of themselves, it simply is not enough and should be combined with other forms of self care to increase its effectiveness (Williams & Ramsey, 2017).
[The tendency to rationalize police officer suicides] is likely due to the compassion fatigue that [officers] experience as a result of the requirements of their jobs.
When I first started writing this post, I couldn’t help but think “what a sad topic to be writing about”. But as I continued to think about what I wanted to say, I realized that it doesn’t have to be sad. There are a lot of ways that we can fix this problem and improve the mental health of police officers. For example, research has shown that mindfulness and peer support groups are a great start to reducing these tragedies (Grupe et al., 2021). In general, police officers need to be made more aware of the resources that are available to them, because there are a lot of resources available.
The stigma surrounding mental health still poses a significant difficulty. Unless it is overcome, resources will go underused at critical stages of intervention. Police officers need to be made more aware that they and others on the job are allowed to have emotions. Once an officer recognizes this, so many more doors are open to them.
So the first step to reducing police officer suicide is talking about it. This may sound too simple to be effective, but it really is that simple. Normalizing mental health struggles among police officers, and getting officers to actually talk about this, is necessary to breaking down the stigma around mental health. Police officers would be less ashamed of attending peer support groups, they would be more mindful of the state of their mental health, and they would be able to better take care of themselves. Ultimately, this would benefit not only the officers but the public and the families of police officers too.
Research has shown that mindfulness and peer support groups are a great start to reducing these tragedies (Grupe et al., 2021).
This post does not provide medical or clinical advice and is no substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is intended for informational purposes only. Visitors who access the post and rely on its content do so at their own risk. This post represents the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. If you are feeling lost or hopeless, or someone you know is feeling lost or hopeless, call the national suicide prevention hotline at 800-273-8255.
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