The quote “law enforcement’s dirty secret” comes from the “Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders” (2018). The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) calls it a “collective silence” and states that the shame and stigma associated with the topic of suicide help to reinforce our collective silence both as a profession and a culture. Embarrassment and shame prevent open discussions about suicide and often stop Department members from seeking help. Law enforcement and society have ignored the rising suicide rates for many years. Suicides of law enforcement personnel (including security personnel and those working in custody facilities) are 20 percent higher than the general public (lawenforcementtoday.com, 2018). Working in law enforcement, you are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. Yet out of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, only 3–5 percent (500–900 of those agencies) have suicide prevention programs.
Working for a law enforcement agency, staff undergo pre-employment psychological screenings and the profession seeks to promote qualities such as courage and strength. The culture of law enforcement prides itself on the accountability of its members, so why are the suicide rates so high? The average age of a law enforcement employee who dies by suicide is 42, and their average time on the job is 16 years. Researchers agree that these numbers reflect a deterioration of one’s mental health that occurs over the course of the job. According to IACP, this should be viewed as an officer safety issue and agencies should provide appropriate training (as you would address any officer safety concern).
One area being explored is exposure to critical incidents. The theory is that the longer someone is on the job, the more exposures to critical incidents and the more likely that mental health symptoms may emerge. The greater your exposure to critical incidents, the greater chance that you will have symptoms of PTSD, depression and alcohol abuse (Menard and Arter, 2013). And, to be clear, suicide is the tragic result of untreated/ignored mental health symptoms (Ruderman White Paper, 2018), and not due to a weak, selfish or flawed personality.
• Exposure to critical incidents: Constant exposure to violence, injury and death are normal for law enforcement and custody staff. The higher number of critical incidents experienced, the more likely mental health symptoms will emerge.
• Untreated/unrecognized mental health symptoms: Slowly, over time, symptoms emerge such as numbness, detachment, feelings of hopelessness and increased substance abuse. These symptoms are easy to ignore and happen insidiously.
• Personal crisis, performance deficits and health impairments: If these symptoms go untreated, a personal crisis can emerge, such as relationship problems/breakups/divorce, work performance issues and declining health. The ability to cope with the job and personal affairs starts to erode.
• Suicide: Suicidal thoughts may build slowly over time. If left untreated, they can lead to feelings of hopelessness, depression and anxiety, ultimately increasing the risk of attempting suicide. Anyone can have suicidal thoughts, even people with no prior mental health problems.
How can we address the growing tragedy of the suicides within our law enforcement community? First, we talk about it. We begin conversations with increasing awareness, and over time, reduce the shame and stigma surrounding suicide. If you see something, say something. If you see someone struggling, say something — reach out to them. If you are struggling, let someone reach out to you, or you can call for help 24/7. The second part is making sure all Department members know the resources available to them 24/7. LASD is very fortunate to have a large and well-trained team of doctors at Psychological Services Bureau (PSB), where all employees can come for free, confidential services. Specifically, our LASD law enforcement psychologists specialize in exposure to critical incidents, mental health symptoms, crisis and performance issues as well as interventions. PSB also has a Peer Support Program (where you can talk to a peer who does the job you do), a Chaplaincy Program (where trained chaplains provide religious counseling services to Department members) and a Substance Abuse Resource Program (where a deputy can link you to treatment and other SA resources). Call Psychological Services Bureau today at (213) 738-3500 to request information about any of our programs. Help begins the conversation — for you, for your peers and for our law enforcement community.
Heyman, M., Dill, J., Douglas, R. “The Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders.” (2018).
Menard, K.S. and Arter, M.L. “Police officer alcohol and trauma symptoms: Associations with critical incidents, coping, and social stressors.” International Journal of Stress Management, 20(1), 37–56. (2013).