Article written in 2017 by Terry Shigg, former vice president of the NBPC and former president of NBPC Local 1613 (San Diego).
NOTE: Article was updated with new resource links at the bottom of the article and minor edits, including updated data where available.
Suicide is one of the top killlers of law enforcement officers in the United States. A sobering statistic in law enforcement is the fact that an officer is more likely to be a victim of suicide than a homicide. The suicide rate of law enforcement officers is also higher than the general population. The suicide rate is 14.0 per 100,000 for the general population and 23 per 100,000 for law enforcement. Suicide is devastating to families, friends and co-workers. What do you think when you hear a story about one of your own who risks his/her life everyday for this country taking their life? It saddens me and it maddens me! It is something you have a hard time understanding when you hear about it happening; especially, when it happens to one of your own. As an agent and as a mental health professional, it makes me want to do more. I hope this information is useful. If only one suicide is prevented that is a victory.
Here are some of the warning signs:
1. Threatens to harm-self.
2. Prior suicide attempt(s).
3. Disturbance in sleep/appetite/weight.
4. Thinking is constricted – all or nothing, black or white.
5. Increased risk-taking behavior.
6. Has plan and means for suicide.
10. Hopeless, not future-oriented; giving away valued possessions.
11. Problems at work/home.
12. Recent loss (status, loved one).
13. Under investigation.
14. Socially isolated/withdrawn.
15. Increased consumption of alcohol/drugs.
As agents, you do some of these things as habit in order to perform your job. These things serve you well in your daily work, but hinder your ability to get help when you truly need it. For instance, if you have problems at home, you try not to take it with you to work. You try to separate the two so you can do your job. You try to set problem at home aside to get the job done, to make sure you have your fellow agent’s back when he/she needs you. The problem occurs when you get overloaded. You can only do this for so long before it overwhelms you. This can lead to what psychiatrist Karl Menninger referred to as “suicide by inches.”
This refers to more gradual behaviors of self-destruction, like excessive spending in an effort to buy happiness; excessive drinking or compulsive adultery as a means to escape; addictively overworking at the cost of relationships with spouse and kids.” The Force Science News #101: Practical pointers for preventing “suicide by inches” Bill Lewinski.
As agents, you try to blow-off steam in ways that may not help, which in turn masks the problems. Going out and drinking alcohol (choir practice) is one example. It is something that is done in celebration at times. It becomes a problem when it is an escape or a way to forget about the problems at home and/or at work. You compound all of these issues and then you have a dangerous mix. I am not trying to be Chicken Little here. I just want agents to remember that suicide is NEVER the answer. Instead, it is a poor solution to temporary problems.
Some good suggestions I have found in this article and my practice are:
1. Talk to a buddy. Confide in someone who you can honestly open up to without worry of how they are going to judge you. Sometimes it’s nice to just have a sounding board.
2. Develop a purpose outside of work. There is more to life than the “JOB.” Remember it is just a job. When you leave or go on vacation the job still gets done. Find something you enjoy doing outside of work that is in line with whom you really are or who you want to be. It could be anything from going back to school, fishing, or building model ships in glass bottles. You can also volunteer to help those less fortunate. That always puts things in perspective. Who cares what it is, just do something constructive, positive, fun and purposeful to you.
3. Pay attention to your mental health. Pay attention for the symptoms listed above and below. Intervene if you see them happening in your life, a friends, or a co-workers.
a. Are you calling in sick more than usual?
b. Do you drink frequently and excessively?
c. Are you coming to work hungover frequently?
d. Are you always irritable?
e. Do you feel as though no one will understand?
f. Are you worried about getting fired?
g. Are you having problems at home (divorce, break-up, death in the family, bankruptcy etc.)?
These are a just a few things that may contribute to problems in your physical and mental health. If they are contributing, then seek help to develop a plan to deal with these issues. You are not the first person to have the problems and you will not be the last. Your ability to deal with them might help you help someone else.
4. Consider getting a checkup.
a. Go to you general practitioner if you don’t know what to do or don’t want to go to a “shrink.”
b. A yearly mental health checkup was suggested in the article from The Force Science News and I think it is an excellent idea.
I know as Law Enforcement Officers we tend to not trust outsiders, especially mental health professionals, but there are some good professionals out there. Find one that fits with you. Mental health professionals understand that sometimes it is not personal; it is just that you do not click. It is ok to shop around for a therapist. Yes, I said the word because it is not a four letter one; although it may be more acceptable to agents if it was one.
Now I take my mental health professional hat off and this is straight from my heart as an agent. We have a saying that we would rather be tried by twelve than carried by six. Give things a chance to work themselves out. You cut off all options with such a final actions. With time the situation will lose some of its sting. Think of it this way: every Law Enforcement Officer hates a cop killer and suicide is clearly a cop killer!
No matter the situation. You must remember that your life is a gift. How you choose to express that gift is up to you. Respect this gift and get help if you need it. Most of all, remember things are never as bad as they seem, and you are much stronger than you think! Remember: SUICIDE is NEVER the answer!