Trigger Warning: This blog post contains discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know might be struggling with suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm, you can call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255, or chat online at 988lifeline.org. Or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.
In May 2023, USA Today reported, “Police officers face a 54% greater risk of suicide than the general population. Last year, 180 officers took their own lives, nearly three times the number shot and killed in the line of duty.
Do we as a society realize why suicide is so high among cops? I’m not sure we do.
Many cops will have a 25-year career and never pull their gun on anyone, much less shoot it — and even more rarely kill someone with it.
Yet every day, they encounter trauma. They see people die in car accidents, suicides, gang violence, drug overdoes… They witness child abuse and domestic violence. They walk into unspeakable homes and race towards bad guys robbing 7-Elevens. Sure, it’s not all of that every day. But every day some of that. And the effects compound massively over time.
The toll is so significant, in fact, that there’s a name for it: vicarious trauma. The Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime describes vicarious traumatization as “a negative reaction to trauma exposure and includes a range of psychosocial symptoms.”
The OVC says, “the term ‘vicarious traumatization’ is used broadly to include other related terms such as secondary traumatic stress (STS), compassion fatigue (CF), and critical incident stress (CIS).”
According to a presentation distributed by the OVC, “Across sectors, 40–80 percent of helping professionals experience high rates of secondary trauma.” And “Among 28 global studies of PTSD, rescuers (fire fighters, ambulance personnel, police, search and rescue teams) had a prevalence rate of 10 percent compared with 4.4 percent within the general population in developed countries.”
Think about it. How many times could you see those things — witness death, violence, the devastating effects of drugs, or children being hurt in acts of revenge — before you were affected? Me? Not many, before I’d lose my grounding.
There’s a reason I’m a coach and not a therapist: because it’s difficult to live every day entrenched in human suffering, so much of which we have created ourselves. As a society, we have lost touch with the truth: that we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper.
We cannot take a single act of a cop out of the context of all the other elements of their reality. They don’t train to coach basketball, they train to stop bad guys as best they can without hurting the good guys along the way. And the vast majority of the time, they get it right.
How do we as a society elevate the conversation to honor this nuance, to have the complex conversations, to understand the countless mitigating factors that help us recognize when an officer is beyond their limits and needs to be taken care of? Because they are also members of our community whose emotions are real and whose fears are legitimate.
One of the challenges of supporting mental health among cops and preventing officer suicide is that cops have a tendency to hang out with cops. They prefer peer-to-peer support for obvious reasons.
On one hand, this is good: they feel supported. My friend understands me and knows me. We can speak in shorthand. They get it.
But there are negatives to this tendency of cops to “keep to their own,” so to say. When officers spend all their time with other cops, an echo chamber develops. Their world becomes insulated. They commiserate with other cops, and the law enforcement world is all they know. Things become self-fulfilling prophecies. The negativity spirals, and there’s not enough distance to see the world clearly.
A key component to officer mental health is stepping away from that culture and developing a healthier, more balanced perspective. They need to see the good. The kindness. The hope. When a bad thing happens in the life of a cop, they need exposure therapy to those positive things as much as they need peer-to-peer support.
Over the last five to ten years, more and more cops have taken advantage of their peer-to-peer support lines, and many have found help connecting with counselors that have military or police experience.
A colleague of mine who works at a local Sheriff’s Office recommends accessing your employer’s own Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
And if you’re concerned about whether you’ll be able to find providers who can meet you where you are and speak your language, you can.
He says, “We have worked hard to ensure our EAP providers are LE culturally competent. I have worked with our HR team along with local doctors and therapists to make sure they are good resources.”
Finding a good fit might take some persistence, but it is so important to stick with it. My colleague says, “After almost 25 years in peer support, one thing I’ve learned is that if you feel like the connection you had with a doctor or therapist was not great, keep looking. Sometimes you need to find the right person to help you. It takes a lot to reach out and ask for help. Not having a good experience can be detrimental, but finding the right person can be life saving.”
He also shared the following helpful resources with me:
- Resources for Healing by psychologist, trusted “Doc” to military veterans, and Harvard University graduate Dr. Shauna Springer
- This article from Police1: 5 common myths about suicide
- This essential resource from Police1: Suicide prevention resources for first responders
- The Police1 Health & Wellness page
If you’re interested in learning more about how your law enforcement agency can help prevent officer suicide, the National Consortium on Preventing Law Enforcement Suicide is a great place to start.
Police suicide deserves our attention, understanding, and action. No one should have to suffer in silence, and if speaking up here helps even one person keep moving forward with their life, I couldn’t ask for a better outcome.