GSP Captain Andy Carrier, LMSW
“Suicide has been described as a death like no other … and it truly is. Death by suicide stuns with soul-crushing surprise, leaving family and friends not only grieving the unexpected death, but confused and lost by this haunting loss.” Serani, 2013
More than 40,000 people will commit suicide in the United States every year. It is currently the 10th leading cause of death in this country when considering all age groups. It is the 3rd leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15 and 24. More than one million people will attempt suicide every year and more than two million adults report thinking about suicide. Most people who engage in suicidal behavior do not seek health services. More than 10,000 baby boomers are turning 65 every day. Of the total reported number of suicides, more than 20% will be over the age of 65. As the number of older adults in our country grows, so will the number of suicides. These facts come from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).
Generally, there are between 120 and 150 law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty every year in the United States. Although, some years have seen higher numbers and some lower, this is a typical range pertinent to line of duty deaths. It is believed that law enforcement suicides are anywhere from two to three times greater than the number killed in the line of duty every year. This means that somewhere between 240 and possibly up to 450 officers will die by their own hand every year. The sad reality is that we have all been touched by suicide on some level. Some of you reading this will have been touched very deeply by the suicide of a loved one or close friend. If you’ve been in our profession for more than five years, chances are pretty good that you know a fellow officer who took their own life.
Why is suicide so prevalent in law enforcement? Several things come into play here. Due to the nature of our work, we experience two kinds of stress. Acute stress is what we experience during and after traumatic, critical incidents. Cumulative stress is a culmination of all stressors that build over time. Cumulative stress will creep up and bite you if left unchecked. It creeps up because we can’t see the consequences from day to day. As a result of cumulative stress, maladaptive behaviors will progress slowly. While there are other factors to consider as well, becoming an alcoholic, expressing suicidal ideations (overt or covert) and broken relationships do not happen overnight. While Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was purgatory. When dealing with stress, we must address it as it comes. Investing in yourself now can save a lot of heartache later.
Situational depression, also known as Adjustment Disorder, is temporary. If you live a full life, you will experience situational depression. Examples of this would be the death of a loved one, divorce, loss of job, move, etc. Most suicides occur with major depressive disorder (MDD), especially if there are co-occurring conditions or circumstances. Often times, physical health is a comorbid factor. For example – a cancer patient will also suffer from MDD 25% of the time. Someone with a substance abuse disorder (alcohol or drugs) will also suffer from MDD 27% of the time. These percentages were noted in a study by the Depression and Bipolar Alliance. Depression (on any level) can exacerbate physical health and vice-versa. One can feed off the other. Two thirds of all reported suicides are directly linked to major depressive disorder.
In our line of work, we are at the top of the list in alcoholism, divorce, domestic violence and suicide. In our profession, we die ten years before that of the rest of the working population Most of us entered this line of work, as pure, well intended individuals with an eye on helping people. Somewhere along the line, things can become not as clear as they once were. Personal life clashes with work life and so true is the opposite. The things we see and deal with on the street, combined with internal agency friction are where our stress lies. If an officer works at an agency where he/she does not feel supported, the stress felt in this situation will exceed that of the street related stress. It is the administration’s responsibility to ensure that “agency friction” is held to a minimum and to create and encourage an environment where all employees feel supported. The rest is up to you.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline