In the past several years the topic of officer suicide has crept into the public lexicon, and is starting to be treated as a serious topic that needs to be addressed. The problem is being addressed at literally the lowest possible starting point: statistics on officer suicide are massively skewed, as few agencies track officer suicide, there is no national database for data, and mental health resources are scattered outside of pre-hire processing in law enforcement. We’d like to talk about an extremely sensitive topic, one that we are passionate about at CaseGuard.
Suicide prevention starts with you. No matter what support circle you have, no matter what resources are available, preventing suicide, and the feelings that surround it, comes down to you.
Officers are exposed to panic, sadism, disease, mental illness, disorder, and outright chaos at any given moment. Over time, these exposures can be coupled with other factors, like agency morale, financial, family, and other personal stress. When these various influences combine, their weight over an elongated period of time, it can lead to the officer feeling isolated, vulnerable, depressed, and generally warped.
Agencies should have a layered approach to handling situations where officers are stressed out in a number of scenarios. But none of that matters if at first the officer isn’t prepared to identify their own feelings, form an action plan, and take back control.
The first thing any agency should be doing is identifying for officers the more common symptoms and conditions they could experience in the course of their career. Second, helping them develop a personalized plan for addressing when these symptoms may present themselves is key. It’s not enough to know what you’re going to contend with. You also need to know how you’re going to contend with it.
Stress and More
Officers obviously deal with stress. The level of that stress is predicated on many personal and professional factors. While personal stress is bound to happen for all, and professional stress is part of the nature of law enforcement work, what agencies should be invested in, are programs that help address both sides of stress for their personnel.
On the professional side, police do have psychologists, who conduct psychological tests for recruits. However, those same psychologists are available for officers, if they so choose to access them. Most officers will not, because they are afraid those conversations will be reported to their agency, and then used against them in employment actions.
This is not the right way to handle officers looking to sort out stress. Rather than looking to act against officers, agencies should be finding ways to support officers as they confront stress that has become too big to manage on their own. If officers are not actively considering suicide, and not considering violence against others, agencies should be staying out of the psychology business, and focus on supporting the officer as they make progress towards relieving themselves of the past.
From a personal standpoint, agencies should have programs in place that work to support officers through personal challenges. Whether it is marital, financial, family, non-narcotic addictions, or another stressor, agencies should have programs in place that work to empower officers to confront their problems, design a plan to solve the problem, and have someone for the officer to follow-up with as they work through the problem.
It may mean that the agency contracts the services of certified financial planner, accountant, and/or a family mediator. But rather than absorbing these costs, agencies should find a middle ground where they share these costs with officer’s union/guild, if one does exist. Another aspect to these services is that the providers may offer them at a reduced rate, because it works as a referral service for them, which ultimately builds their business even larger. Regardless of the contractual obligations, the priority should be to offer different people who can act as resources to assist personnel in tackling problems before they get out of hand.
You cannot force officers to seek these services out, but having them available, and having a reasonable plan on how they should be accessed, used, and ensuring privacy when officers access these resources is crucial. In promoting mental health, getting officers to proactively engage resources means to remove employment implications from the equation.
Mental health of officers is quickly becoming a definitive issue for leadership to address. You’ll either become innovative and create a legacy of leadership that is readily transferable, or you’ll compound the issue with a narrow focus towards policy and liability – arguments that have been made, and have yet to make case law, or precedent of any kind. Understanding that officers, just like everyone else on the planet, suffer from issues concerning family, financial, stress, and other topics, is the first step towards fixing this problem. The second step is creating a list of resources available, and making it known that officers have safe options for navigating their personal and professional challenges is key. Agencies must be proactive in providing resources to officers so they know they are not alone. We owe it to them, for all that they do for us.
Be safe out there!