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Commentary: The Tragic Outcome of Police Stress: Police Suicide

Suicide epidemic spreads through police ranks. The lengthy two part article by David Armstrong covered all the aspects of police suicide, though I was disappointed at first to see what I thought was a hint of a negative slant given to the well known fact that the statistics on police suicide are unreliable because of how many police suicides are reported as accidental.

Police stress in general and police suicide in particular has been ignored, misrepresented, and inadequately studied. In part this is because far too many police suicides have been covered up, often as the article suggests, because of embarrassment, life insurance considerations, and potential law suits. The result of under-reporting has been that remedial actions that could have saved lives have not been taken, and too many police departments (and correction departments as well) have not developed police stress programs and critical incident debriefing procedures.

The percentages of suicide in law enforcement are staggering by any measure no matter how unreliable. But even one police suicide is one too many. The fact is that virtually all suicide caused by depression and anger is preventable with appropriate intervention.

Police officers are no different than anyone else when it comes to the vicious cycle of despair that accompanies, and is part and parcel of suicidal depression. Like a snake eating it’s tail, depression feeds on itself. Instead of recognizing that feeling hopeless is a symptom of depression, you interpret the feeling as a fact, and begin to think thoughts that support the fuel the feeling and make it worse. Unfortunately police officers tend not to avail themselves of psychotherapy because they see going to a counselor as a sign of weakness. They also may not trust therapists, often because of past experiences with them in court or because the therapists they’ve met have not been the kind of people they’d ever open up to.

There’s one form of suicide that can be remedied without a police stress therapist or counselor, and that’s suicide caused by insensitive police administration. If chiefs and command officers paid more attention to morale, and were alert to signs of distress in the ranks, there would be less police officer depression. In instances when officers feel betrayed or abandoned by their bosses and hung out to dry, for whatever reason, it is common first for anger to emerge, but depression usually lurks just below the surface. Outrage and resentment, often justified, can mask the underlying depression.

While it sounds adolescent, and police officers in particular rarely admit thinking it, suicide is often preceded by the thought: I’ll show them. Police suicides that occur on duty are often the result of rage at the police bureaucracy. Officers can become so involved in visualizing the scene of being discovered dead at the wheel of their cruiser that it doesn’t really sink in that they won’t be around to witness the goings on.

Some police officers succumb to the embarrassment and humiliation of being caught in illegal activities by committing suicide. A police officer who faces going to prison is always a high suicide risk. A police officer who has betrayed his or her oath doesn’t deserve to die. In fact, when a police officer is suspended pending an investigation which could result in serious disciplinary action, referral to a police stress counselor (with whom confidentiality is assured) should be standard operating procedure.

There’s really no such thing as run-of-the-mill police stress. Police officers are so adept at pretending everything is copasetic that what appears to be minor stress can really be the tip of the iceberg. And we know what happened to the Titanic. Every warning sign of stress must be taken seriously. It is better to err on the side of caution than ignore a problem that could result in the death of an officer.


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