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2017 police suicides expected to exceed LOD deaths

Posted by: Jennifer Gomori Posted date: July 17, 2018


— By POJ Editor Jennifer Gomori with excerpts from lawofficer.com, Lansing State Journal & other media reports

A high number of suicides among law enforcement officers in 2017 has reversed what was hoped to be a declining trend. There were 102 self-inflicted deaths identified, but suicides for the year are really expected to be 140, according to a lawofficer.com article.

That means law enforcement suicides are anticipated to surpass the 128 reported 2017 line-of-duty deaths. Lawofficer.com uses a mathematical formula to calculate suicides that are hidden by agencies or misreported. Many cases are expected to be publicized as further reports come in 2018.

Tami Hough, of Hough Counseling and Assessments in Troy, said there are many reasons why officers don’t seek help, but at the top of the list is fear of losing their jobs. So instead of getting help, officers often develop substance abuse problems to escape depression. Drugs and alcohol can be a quick fix alternative to counseling, she said, especially when they don’t feel they can discuss mental health issues with co-workers.

“The problem that’s happening is Police Officers are afraid to go to supervisors because the fear is that if they’re having problem with alcohol or substance abuse … there’s the possibility they’ll be asked to go on disability or resign,” said Hough, whose agency works with Cops Trust to provide members with confidential counseling services with no co-pays or deductibles. “They end up in depression, relationship problems, job stress and they don’t want to look bad to other officers.”

But department mandated counseling doesn’t provide the confidentiality officers need to feel safe discussing their mental health issues, she said. “You want them to be able to trust their counselor,” she said. “A work mental health evaluation will have information in there on whether they have some type of mental health issues and will go to the employer. If that’s something that is ordered, they won’t want to work with a therapist because they’re concerned about losing their job.”

SEE NO EVIL
It’s ironic that the close-knit nature of law enforcement seems to exclude discussions about normal reactions to very traumatic situation they experience together. Seeing the aftermath of homicides, deadly accidents, and crimes in progress are among the events officers may experience multiple times during their career.

“They have the camaraderie, but there’s definitely that stigma there if they ask for help, something is wrong. They don’t want to be shunned by their peers if they’re having trouble with something they’ve seen,” Hough said. “It doesn’t mean if you need help you’re weak or you can’t do the job necessarily.”

When an officer is unable to save someone’s life or the crime scene involves the death of a child, it’s easy to understand the lasting impression on their mental health. “Officers have committed suicide if they were unable to save a life,” Hough said. “They’re in a constant state of adrenaline and wanting to save people and they see a lot of different things we don’t see. Everybody reacts differently to situations too, especially when they’re dealing with children. That’s pretty intense if they can’t save a child. Their job is to serve and save people and protect. If they can’t do what they’re trained to do, they’re going to take that on as dire.”

Like doctors, Hough said, “They have to understand sometimes you can’t save a life.”

The Badge of Life, a non-profit organization which has been tracking police suicides since 2008, reports an average of 130 deaths for each past year studied, according to lawofficer.com. Based on available figures, the average age for a police suicide was 42 years and 96 percent were males. Twenty of the 2017 suicides were Command officers and the rest were officers and deputies. Guns continue to be the primary means of committing suicide with three overdoses, one poisoning and two hangings reported.

The Badge of Life study includes only fully sworn “police officers,” not other law enforcement, such as: retirees, separated officers, animal control, wildlife, reserve officers, prison/corrections, and more. Some of these occupations are studied and/or included by organizations like Blue H.E.L.P., which as of March 15, had listed 154 “verified suicides” in 2017 and 21 so far in 2018 on their website. The non-profit Blue H.E.L.P. works with Badge of Life to publicize suicides and has an online form by which families and associates can submit their cases.

Hough has counseled Police Officers and other public safety employees. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault, and depression affects many in these careers. “Police Officers actually experience PTSD in a similar way as military officers because of the things police encounter,” Hough said. “They encounter the same kind of things in their career that soldiers do – deaths, shootings (even with automatic weapons). They are, in a sense, in a battle when out on the street.”

CORRECTIONS OFFICERS SUICIDES
PTSD also likely affects more than a third of Corrections Officers in state prisons, according to a 2016 study commissioned by the Michigan Corrections Organization (MCO), the officers’ union. About 5% of Michigan corrections officers were at a high risk for suicide, the study found, with problems more pronounced among those working in high-security facilities and longtime officers. At least 11 active or recently retired officers have committed suicide since 2015, according to the most recent reporting by MCO.

Some 34% of state prison Corrections Officers and Forensic Security Assistants at the state’s Center for Forensic Psychiatry — the facility for criminal defendants incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity — met the criteria for PTSD. A quarter of Corrections Officers met the criteria for both PTSD and depression.

Corrections Department officials have partnered with MCO to address PTSD and suicide risk. Spokesman Chris Gautz said the department’s director talks about the risk at every Corrections Officer school graduation, encouraging officers and their families to help one another. “One (suicide) is too many; I know we’ve had several already this year,” Gautz said in a May 2016 Lansing State Journal article. “It’s definitely an issue that we’re very mindful of.”

MCO wants PTSD coping mechanisms to be part of officers’ and supervisors’ yearly training. “We are working to build awareness of corrections PTSD with MDOC administrators and other policy makers,” said Anita Lloyd, MCO Communications Director. “We’re continuing the conversation with corrections staff in other states because it’s a nationwide problem. We need to speak in one voice to move the needle on corrections PTSD.”

MCO’s 2017 Officer of the Year Cary Johnson said in a Lansing State Journal article that she takes new recruits to the Fallen Officers Memorial outside MCO’s Lansing offices to remind them of the physical dangers they’ll face working inside prison walls. However, she said, “There are more ways this job can kill you.”

Corrections Officers must stop fights and sexual assaults and are assaulted themselves. Inmates throw bodily fluids at them. However, they must not show their emotions so as not to appear weak to inmates. Like police, they aren’t likely to deal with mental health issues arising from job-related stress because of concerns about being fired, Johnson said.

MAKE A SAFE CALL FOR HELP
Hough said the best thing public safety agencies can do is to provide peer support and encourage confidential mental health counseling. Hough is hoping to do her part by traveling around the state visiting public safety departments in the near future with Sean Riley, Founder & President of Safe Call Now, a 24-hour confidential, comprehensive crisis referral service for public safety employees and their family members nationwide. “What Sean and I are going to be doing is to put out a message that it is OK to ask for help,” Hough said.

Helping departments develop a peer support system so officers can talk to co-workers “safely” is key to getting officers the help they need. “The stigma in departments is that it’s not OK to ask for help,” Hough said. “They’re already living the pressure on the streets. They need … peer support -— to not be so judgmental, to be supportive of each other.”

“It’s healthy for the department to offer the options. If they ask for help, provide them with coping skills they can utilize on a daily basis,” Hough said. “Our recommendation is for peers to stick together.”

Law enforcement and other public safety officers can call Safe Call Now to be connected with confidential help. The organization, based in Washington, was started in 2009 after legislation passed guaranteeing confidentiality for all who call Safe Call Now crisis line, which is staffed by current and former first responders including Riley. He was a law enforcement officer from 1987 to 2005 when his police career ended due to alcohol and drug abuse. He was headed toward suicide himself. Instead, Riley got a degree in substance abuse counseling and worked as a supervisor at a local treatment center where he witnessed many public safety employees coming in and out of treatment.

“With Safe Call Now, they provide them with emotional armor — teach them how to deal with these day–to-day things that they see,” Hough said. “You need self-care — you’re human and there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. It’s important that they have these programs in place… instead of telling them to just suck it up.”

Peer programs and support also help officers spot the signs of a co-worker contemplating suicide so they can take action before it’s too late. “That’s the ultimate,” Hough said. “It’s important to have that without having that judgment — and not expect to have your peers report what you say to them. This is a very honorable job they’re doing and we need them to feel good and be healthy.”

SUICIDE WARNING SIGNS
• Acting withdrawn or noticeably more angry or agitated.
• Not being as sharp on the job.
• Not enjoying things they used to.
• Not acting like they normally do, behavior changes.
• Drinking more alcohol than normally do.
• Not sleeping much.
• Problems in their marriage, not wanting to go home.
• Verbalizing thoughts of suicide.

“With depression you start to not enjoy things you used to — you’re not real happy, not yourself,” Hough said. “It’s important for peers to recognize. Alcoholism and substance abuse is a quick way to cope. Notice any difference in their behavior — are they sleeping, are they having problems in their marriage, are they going home?”

If an individual has expressed they’re thinking about taking their life, they should go to a hospital and have a professional help them, she said.

DEALING WITH SUICIDES
Public safety agencies often don’t want to call attention to job-related suicides. But sweeping them under the rug doesn’t help other officers deal with loss and prevent future suicides, Hough said. “They see their peers taking their own lives because they couldn’t cope and they didn’t get the help they needed. There is this constant cycle,” Hough said. “It definitely has an impact. It makes them more afraid to speak about their problems. They know for a fact they can lose their job, or be given a leave of absence. They would rather commit suicide than do that.”

In Massachusetts, state Representatives Jim Lyons, R-Andover, and Timothy Whelan, R-Barnstable sponsored a bill, which would require mandatory training in mental wellness and suicide prevention for police officers. The legislation proposes a two-hour course in all police training schools to teach officers ways to develop healthy coping skills. It also would help them recognize post-traumatic stress disorder, signs of suicidal behavior in themselves and others, and teach them about finding mental health resources. “Suicide prevention awareness training would be a definite benefit,” Hough said. “We need to help Officers deal with this.”

SUICIDE PREVENTION RESOURCES

  • Visit Hough Counseling and Assessments online or call (248) 528-0157. Cops Trust members will receive waivers of co-pays and deductibles.
  • Visit Safe Call Now, a confidential, comprehensive, 24-hour crisis referral service for all public safety employees, all emergency services personnel and their family members nationwide. Make a Safe Call Now at (206) 459-3020.

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