Police Suicide — A Public Health Problem
He was 44, a father of 2 with a 22-year-old's physique, the “go-to” guy at the station, a bright and assertive prosecutor, on the way up—and dead. Dead from a self inflicted gunshot wound. Dead from years of alcohol escapes; escapes from the nightmares, the pressure, the FEAR. He was the best kind of police officer—kind, compassionate, tough and funny, smart, helpful and always good-natured. He was the helper, not the helpee. He was a cop.
PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has been in the news a lot lately, particularly with regard to our soldiers returning from combat. Indeed, it has been a long overlooked problem of the military, afflicting thousands of men and women from previous and current wars. The toll on society of this untreated disorder is immeasurable—with families sometimes decimated by the emotional ravages of abuse meted out by uncontrolled rages and flashbacks, or the lost productivity and wages due to desperate bouts of alcoholism and drug addiction-- futile efforts to quell relentless psychic pain. At its worst, suicide and even homicide are the end result of lives gone completely awry without proper psychiatric treatment.
Less commonly considered, is the PTSD suffered by our own law enforcement, whose jobs may be somewhat more mundane, but no less traumatic in the inescapable fact of having to deal with whatever comes their way—not necessarily bombs or snipers, but car accidents, domestic violence, mob mentality, natural disasters, armed robbers etc. Cops must deal—they can't be afraid, they can't run away, they can't go crazy-- or just be rational—they can't even call the cops. They have to take action and they have to do it right.
For all that, cops get a bad rap. Not that they don't sometimes deserve it for their own bad behaviors, but they also deserve compassion... and respect. A cop who succumbs to corruption or bullying is a human being who whose conscience needs reviving; a cop who slides into depression and alcoholism is a person in despair. Yet our society does not acknowledge such vulnerabilities; indeed we disdain them. A cop in pain is weak—and disrespected.
It's no wonder that police suicide is a problem on the rise and one which needs preventive treatment just as any other public health problem does. There is a handful of education and training programs available to police officers and their families which offer support and also recommend regular preventive treatment — an annual checkup like going to the dentist — a no big deal medical intervention that could save lives and change prevailing attitudes toward what is truly strong and protective in our society. An example of this type of programs is Badge of Life. Mental health care is as necessary for our police officers and firefighters as it is for our school teachers and doctors and CEO's of large corporations.
But to do this requires a shift in the popular mythology of what a police officer is. We need to allow that they too are human beings, with the full range of emotions that we all experience—and which makes them better cops—for their ability to be strong, compassionate and caring—the cornerstone of the neighborhood police officer who protects the public trust and receives public respect.