A Better Way: Ridding Help of Stigma

Although well intentioned, employee assistance programs often fail to prevent police suicides

By Michael A. Orticelle   |   Mar 15, 2016

We know the number of law enforcement suicides is extremely high compared to other professions. The precise numbers, however, are hard to prove. Current statistics show a rate of 18 per 100,000 police officers and 39 of 100,000 corrections officers are committing suicide. (For comparison, the general population is committing suicide at at rate of 12 per 100,000.)

In both cases these numbers show that more officers are committing suicide than are being killed in the line of duty (Police Chief Magazine). And my guess is that rates of suicide are actually much higher than the official estimates.

The Stigma of Help & PTSD

One of the problems with getting accurate numbers is police culture itself. It’s supposedly a sign of weakness if we acknowledge we need help. So the stigma of suicide has to be addressed head on.

The term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become part of our vernacular due to a generation that has been forced to fight in foreign wars. Post-traumatic stress is generally associated with the exposure to a horrific event or events. Meanwhile law enforcement officers are often subjected to many horrific events over a 20 – 25 year career. Long-term exposure causes career-cumulative traumatic stress (CCTS), and the culture of police work doesn’t allow us to address this stress. Those who do are often seen as weak and unreliable officers.

Many law enforcement agencies, in an effort to provide qualified counselors for their officers, have created Employee Assistance Plans (EAPs), which, frankly, are considered by many officers as a direct line to management and in no way confidential. Some EAPs allow all staff to use their services, making officers even more suspect of the people working at the EAP.

A Better Way

There is a grass-roots effort by officers to help other officers in need. Peer groups are being created by officers in order to circumvent EAPs and traditional treatment methods in an effort to maintain a high degree of confidentiality.

New York State is leading in this effort. The Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) and the N.Y. State Police have created training courses to teach interested officers how to be effective peers. Dr. Richard Ovens, a retired trooper and a practicing psychologist, is credited with creating the peer training for officers interested in becoming peers and for creating the NYSP EAP program. The NYSP program enjoys a reputation as a professional organization that has helped many officers while maintaining confidentiality.

The Trauma Resources and Unified Management Assistance training (T.R.A.U.M.A) created by Scott Neff from DCJS has become a model for helping to remove the stigma surrounding PTSD and suicide among law enforcement officers. Active and retired officers from police and corrections tell their stories of how they struggled with stress, PTSD, and suicide ideation. The training helps officers identify the signs of stress and is a forum for informing officers that they are not alone and that help is available.

All of the presenters are committed to helping others from letting the stresses of law enforcement work ruin their lives. TRAUMA presenters James Banish, Dave Nowakowski and Gary Ouillette have created an organization called the Protector Project. They have partnered with Waters Edge Recovery to provide treatment services to all first responders.

Robert Douglas, Ph.D, the executive director of the National Police Suicide Foundation, closes the two day TRAUMA training. Dr. Douglas has worked tirelessly since 1997 trying to remove the stigma of suicide and help the surviving family members cope with an officer’s death. Dr. Douglas encourages all first responders to reach out and help fellow officers in order to prevent more suicides.

Removing the stigma of police suicide will take time. Unfortunately, during that time we may lose more officers to suicide. Two weeks ago the Albany County Sheriffs Department in New York State lost the seventh officer in five years to suicide. The rest of the nation tells a similar story.

Conclusion

I encourage all officers to start the conversation and learn to identify the signs of stress and depression. Fellow officers may be struggling with depression or PTSD and may be considering suicide as a way to stop the pain. Isn’t it bad enough that we are losing officers from accidents and gunfire?

We cannot stop officers being killed in the line of duty. There will always be a felon intent on hurting an officer. We can however do a better job at saving officers from completing suicide. Start the conversation. Take care of each other.