As a law enforcement officer, you interact with people who are angry, emotional, injured, frightened or traumatized. Some people welcome your presence, while others resent it. This level of stress can take a toll on you professionally and personally. Not only do you potentially work with citizens that are suicidal, officers themselves are at greater risk of suicide.
One way to assist with suicide prevention is to have several officers trained as "gatekeepers." There has been a gatekeeper training written especially for law enforcement officers and is available through the QPR institute. You can find more information on gatekeeper training at:https://www.qprinstitute.com/about-qpr. Gatekeepers assist by:
- Recognizing behavioral patterns and other warning signs that indicate that a person may be at risk of suicide and other emotional problems.
- Actively intervening, usually by talking to the person in ways that explore the level of risk without increasing it.
- Ensuring that those at risk of suicide or other problems receive the necessary services.
Helping the public
A substantial proportion of the people whom you arrest may be at a higher risk of suicide. Sometimes these people have mental health or substance use disorders. Major stressors can often be a trigger for depression. Going to jail or prison is often a stressful event and when combined with drugs or alcohol can result in suicidal ideation or a completed suicide. The suicide rate in jails nationally is nearly nine times of the general population. According to a study, "those who commit suicide within the first 24 hours of confinement tend to be charged with minor, non-violent, alcohol or drug-related offenses." Individuals thought to be at severe risk of any type of self-harm should be closely monitored. Objects they can use to hurt themselves should be removed.
Some calls you typically attend have a higher rate of suicidal ideation. While any direct threats by people to hurt or kill themselves should be taken seriously, pay special attention in calls involving:
- Domestic abuse.
- Drugs or alcohol.
- People with known mental health issues.
- Juveniles with multiple risk factors or self harm.
If you find yourself involved in a call where a person has died of suicide, you will probably be faced with distraught friends, family or co-workers. These people affected by a suicide are called suicide survivors. The survivors often are overwhelmed with feelings of grief, anger and disbelief. In some cases, they may want to see the body and you should gently explain why it is necessary to secure the area. It is quite possible you will be asked to notify the next of kin when someone has died by suicide. Suicide notifications are best made by a team, and should be made face-to-face, not over the phone. Some effective team combinations are an officer and a chaplain or an officer and a victim advocate. It is usually best to ask to speak privately to the primary adults in a household, confirm their identity and the relationship to the deceased. Most will realize you have bad news, so tell them as quick as you can in a direct and clear manner. Be ready to provide details if they ask and leave a business card so they can contact someone if and when further questions develop.
Reactions upon notification of a suicide can be quite broad. Some people may faint, cry or refuse to accept the news. It is best to stay with the survivors until the emotional situation appears stabilized. Friends and family will need support during the time of crisis, sometimes more than you can or should provide. To best help the survivors in the long run, assist them in involving their own support networks. Resources like local support groups or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1.800.273.TALK (8255) are also helpful.
Law enforcement officers are at elevated risk of divorce, alcoholism and other emotional (including post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD) and health problems (Ayres, 1990). Job stress is one of the reasons that many experts believe law enforcement officers are at risk of suicide. Police culture itself sees strength and authority as essential components of the job. While this culture of self reliance is imperative to the duties you perform every day, it can interfere with officers being willing to seek help from friends and family members or mental health counseling.
In all populations, access to means of suicide plays a factor in completion rates. One of the reasons officer suicides are nationally higher than the general population is that officers routinely have lethal means immediately on hand. Because of access to lethal means, identification and intervention becomes more critical.
Research suggests that a combination of PTSD produces a ten-fold increase in the risk of a suicide for law enforcement personnel.
Recognizing the warning signs:
- Talking about death.
- Giving direct verbal cues, such as "I wish I were dead" and "I'm going to end it all."
- Giving less direct verbal cues, such as "What's the point of living?" "Soon you won't have to worry about me," and "Who cares if I'm dead anyway?"
- Isolating him- or herself from friends and family.
- Expressing the belief that life is meaningless or hopeless.
- Giving away cherished possessions.
- Exhibiting a sudden and unexplained improvement in mood after being depressed or withdrawn.
- Neglecting his or her personal appearance and hygiene.
- Telling others that they are going to hurt themselves. People who say they are thinking of killing themselves should be taken extremely serious.
- Announcing that they are going to do something that will ruin their career, and that they don't care.
- Admitting they feel out of control.
- Appearing hostile, blaming, argumentative and insubordinate or appear passive, defeated and hopeless.
- Developing a morbid interest in suicide or homicide.
- Indicating that they are overwhelmed and cannot find solutions to their problems.
- Asking another officer to keep their weapon or inappropriately using or displaying their weapon.
- Beginning reckless behavior and taking unnecessary risks on the job and/or in their personal lives.
- Carrying more weapons than is appropriate.
- Exhibiting deteriorating job performance (this can be due to alcohol or drug use).
Responding to a fellow officer in need may not be easy, but by doing so you may be able to prevent the loss of a life. Some ways you can respond to the warning signs are:
- Expressing concern to an appropriate person, such as a line supervisor or the department's mental health professional.
- Asking the officer to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.TALK (8255).
- Offering to help the officer find, or accompany the officer to, a mental health professional who is better able to evaluate the officer's risk and assist with next steps.
- Helping the officer's family and friends develop a plan so that someone is with him or her at all times until the crisis is resolved.
Departments can assist in suicide prevention in several ways. One way departments can help is to offer private access to mental health services through contracting or insurance. While it can be an added resource to have mental health services within the department, several studies have noted that officers feel more confident that information will be kept confidential when talking with a third party contractor. Suicide prevention training (including self care) should be integrated into a department's critical incident stress management program.
Information adapted from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and the Heavybadge.com.