By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and it is important to focus our attention on the risk of suicide for police officers. Police stress accumulates over time and if it is not properly managed, that stress will cause physical and mental problems. For instance, many police officers suffer from cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, prolonged exposure to stress hormones such as cortisol, obesity, alcoholism, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The most devastating consequence of unmitigated stress for police officers is suicide. Often, a suicide may occur due to an important loss. The loss may include spousal separation or divorce, financial problems, job-related health problems or a loss of support from their workplace.
Several Factors Can Lead to Police Officer Suicides
Chronic exposure to traumatic events such as deaths or violent crime scenes can cause an officer to have suicidal thoughts. Similarly, self-blame over mistakes made in the field that led to the death of a fellow officer or citizens may also cause an officer to contemplate suicide.
Undiagnosed or unaddressed mental health problems are additional factors that contribute to police suicides. These problems are exacerbated by the stigma that exists in law enforcement over seeking mental health services. Police officers commonly fear that what they tell a counselor about a mental health problem could have a permanent impact on their careers.
In addition, there is the stress of the coronavirus pandemic and the law enforcement perception that the public does not support their work. Those factors can also have an adverse impact on an officer’s mental health.
Police Officer Suicides Are Typically Patrol Officers with Over 15 Years of Service
As of September 2021, there have been 99 police officers who have taken their own lives. According to Blue H.E.L.P., the average years of service of police officers who commit suicide is 15.6 years. Patrol officers are a substantially higher risk of suicide, compared to sergeants or lieutenants.
These statistics make sense because patrol officers typically experience the most exposure to traumatic events in the field. In fact, 2019 saw a record number of police officer suicides in the United States. In 2019, 228 current or former police officers took their lives that year, while 172 officers committed suicide in 2018.
Register now for the Suicide Prevention Awareness Summit on September 24 from 12-5:30 p.m. ET!
The Role of Police Agencies and Coworkers in Preventing Officer Suicides
Nothing is more devastating to a police agency than the loss of an officer, whether that death occurs on the job or as a result of a suicide. Agencies have a very important role to play in mitigating officer suicide.
A shift in police culture is needed. Ideally, police culture should be more supportive of police officers who are struggling to cope after experiencing traumatic events and are seeking counseling.
In addition to taking action when an officer experiences trauma or stressful events that could lead to suicidal thoughts, agencies must take more steps to support their officers’ mental health. Providing the option to transition into specialized units and creating new work opportunities within the agency are helpful ways to disrupt the cumulative stress that can occur from remaining on road patrol. Another tactic is to have tools and resources available that lead to mental health support services.
Supervisors should also regularly monitor and talk with their subordinates if they notice an officer undergoing stress or see indicators that an officer may have suicidal thoughts. Special attention should be paid to police officers who display significant changes in their behavior, attitude, or work ethic following traumatic events in the field or in their personal lives.
To monitor for mental health issues, supervisors should ask questions during annual or semi-annual employee reviews. For instance, a supervisor could ask how the subordinate is managing stress and also have a discussion with the office to determine if there are indicators of mental health problems.
Coworkers also have a vital role in monitoring mental health problems in other police officers. Peer support programs within police agencies can be an effective way for officers to confide in their peers, discuss their struggles and find practical solutions.
More attention needs to remains on the issue of police officer suicides. In time, we can hopefully prevent this problem from growing.