Most of us boast of having the “best job in the world,” yet our profession continues to have one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. How is that?
The baseline of stress is always higher for those in the law enforcement field. No one can convince me otherwise. With each day comes uncertainty. With us it’s not about uncertainty over landing an account or finishing up a project. Our uncertainty involves life and death decisions. Whether it be the proper application of chest compressions, which side of the car we should walk up on during that two-in-the-morning stop, or what’s that shiny thing in his hand, it all carries with it uncertainty. Throw in the fact that we are one of the very, very few professions where mere words over a radio can double our resting heart rate in a matter of seconds, and this occurs on a regular basis. (They actually have a name for this now. They call it “Burst Stress”) It is all real-life shit, and it doesn’t get any more real than what we do, and that applies to all of us whether we’re on the highways, the waters, the cities, the suburbs, or the jails.
The job stress is increased by what we sometimes get in-house from usually well-intentioned but misdirected superiors and sometimes even from within our own ranks.
That’s just what we get from our job, and that alone is more than the average citizen will have to deal with in all aspects of their life. Now throw in the problems of our lives outside the job on top of the work stuff, and there is a recipe for disaster.
As law enforcement officers we all develop a take-control, assertive, I-will-take-charge mentality. It just happens. From the first aid call to the fight call, we run the show. It is so much so that we actually become indignant when someone challenges our authority, our competence, or our handling of a situation.
What happens when we face things that are not within our control? Many in our ranks turn to alcohol or other unhealthy avenues of escape. Some go a far as suicide. In 2000, 150 officers died in the line of duty. 418 committed suicide. That is an outrageously, ridiculous statistic that should be screaming out to all of us. We’re not addressing this nearly enough. That includes you, me and every single one of us on this job. The actual number of police suicides is believed to be much higher too. The biggest factors in the skewed statistics are believed to be poor accounting and the fact that the people who respond to suicides are us, and we try to steer the cause of death away from suicide to protect our brother or sister officer’s family.
One can only wonder how much anguish it must take to put a muzzle in your mouth. The pain must be so great that living just hurts, and the only relief from the pain of life is not living anymore.
With all of this said, why is police suicide still a problem? It’s because we are failing ourselves and each other abysmally. Suicides generally don’t just come out of nowhere. By far, the majority send up flares the size of the bat signal before they actually take their life. These come in one of two ways. First, there are the proactive things that a person in trouble may do like talking about suicide, making statements about hopelessness, helplessness, or worthlessness, preoccupation with death, loss of interest in things once cares about, making arrangements, setting one's affairs in order, giving away possessions, etc.
A second indicator may be found a lot more easily by just noticing what fellow officers are going through in their lives. The ending of a marriage or serious relationship, being involved in a critical incident, the loss of a loved one, or being involved in a serious internal affairs investigation or high-profile incident are probably the top four stressors for law enforcement officers. Flags should automatically go up when we see one of our brothers or sisters facing one of these situations.
It makes no sense that when we hear an officer call for help over the radio we will drive on sidewalks, through plate glass windows and over lawns to get there if we had to, but we’re afraid to ask each other, “Are you okay? How are you handling it?”
The worst part about this is the fact that there are more resources available today than ever before. Many agencies now have employee assistance programs, the State of New Jersey offers the COP2COP program, and the stigma of getting help seems to be subsiding.
The amount of officers who have voluntarily sought professional counseling has exploded in the past five years. Also, the stigma of taking medications for depression or other chemical imbalances, even temporarily to get through a difficult period, has also subsided.
We have to watch out for each other and be proactive in doing so. The fact that three times the amount who die in the line of duty will end their lives by their own hand strongly suggests that we have our collective heads up our collective asses.
If you think that someone is a risk, go to your chief. If nothing is done, go to your union delegate. If still nothing is done, go to your department shrink, the County Prosecutor, the Governor, or whoever your need to go to, but don’t stop. We need to race as fast to help each other emotionally as we would physically.
If it is you who is hurting, reach out. There are so many of us who care and who don’t want to go to your funeral. Maybe your marriage is ending. A divorce or a breakup of relationship can be absolutely devastating. It can wreck your entire existence and haunt every second of your day. But, it does get better. Maybe a call you handled is haunting you or you just lost someone close. No matter what it may be, there are others in our ranks who have been there before and know exactly what you’re experiencing. Happiness will come back, but you have to reach for help if you need it.
The wake of an officer suicide is beyond measure. People’s lives are wrecked. Parents, siblings, children, spouses, friends, and colleagues gather for a day but feel the loss for a lifetime. As bad as that is, the worst part is the wasted life that probably entered law enforcement with goals of doing great things. Somewhere, those goals were lost. Somewhere else, that officer was lost.
This issue should be on our radar screen now and forever. Administrations should carry the brunt of the responsibility, but the problem can’t be fixed without line officers as well. Much of this is preventable. It is up to us to prevent it.
March 7, 2003
"Hello all. I wrote the October 30, 2002 note regarding my assistance of the NJ Trooper. I am now currently active as a lodge trustee in the FOP and a trustee with a police retirees group. I urge all leos/corrections to be involved. The FOP is a very strong Fraternal Organization with Washington DC. pushing for bills that affect us active and retired. We also honor civilians who assist us. Recently we honored a local trucking company who donated his trucks and time when the Trade Center in NYC went down. Overall, we are here to assist each other across state lines as well as locally. There may be something an officer in New Jersey needs. If it can be done, we would be more happy to help. Regards to all.
December 31, 2002
"I am a volunteer with the 1-866-Cop 2 Cop program, I spent 27 years with Newark PD. THIS PROGRAM WORKS. We have a team of trained, retired law enforcement officers who wish the program was available years ago. Always ready to help 24/7. Thank you NJLawman for a mention on your website. Keep up the good work.
-1-866-Cop 2 Cop Volunteer
December 30, 2002
"I've worked for NJ State Corrections for 18 months. I've found the best way for me to deal with stress is to let the job go as soon as I walk out the gate. Sometimes that is difficult. Taking vacations with family and hanging out with friends that are not in law enforcement has also helped me cope with a difficult job.
-Phil / NJDOC
December 22, 2002
"I am a rookie in a law federal law enforcement agency. I never could really appreciate the stress associated with the job we do until I started my new career. I can tell you first hand that I have never thought of taking my own life. A job is not worth losing my loving wife and new son over, but I can relate to and understand why officers would turn the muzzle on themselves. I really don't have any problems with the criminals I come in contact with. Yes there are some that try my nerves, but I always keep it in perspective and just hold my breath. 99% of my job related comes from the people I work with."
Police and Law