The law enforcement culture has typically rejected the notion that officers may need help in coping with stress and trauma in order to prevent or treat depression and avert suicide.
"Police officers do not want to be seen as weak. So if they have depression, or any other mental illness, they are extremely unlikely to get help" (Suicide.org). Groups such as Badge of Life (BOL) are trying to change that culture. They have conducted research on police suicides to begin to get a handle on the issue.
GOOD NEWS: The 2012 BOL study found 12% fewer suicides among law enforcement officers than they did in their 2009 study.
BAD NEWS: In 2012, the BOL still found 126 reported suicides among law enforcement officers, and the actual rate may be much higher (Policesuicidestudy.com).
The improved numbers are being attributed to an increase in peer counseling programs and an increase in the willingness of officers, especially younger officers, to seek professional help. "Suicides can happen in any profession, but they occur 1.5 times more frequently in law enforcement compared to the general population" (Officer.com).
"As we learn more through research and study, however, it becomes obvious that suicide is merely the tip of the iceberg in comparison to the more important issue of mental health in law enforcement" (Policesuicidestudy.com). Since depression is the leading cause of suicide, it cannot be ignored.
"Depression is 90% curable and, with the proper treatment interventions, those thoughts can go away. Eating your gun is not an option; treatment is" (LawOfficer.com).
Risk Factors for Depression
- Relationship difficulties
- Shift work
- Alcohol or other substance abuse
- Personal legal troubles
- Facing prosecution
- Negative public image
- Financial problems
- Physical pain/illness
- Inconsistencies in the criminal justice system
- Unrealistic expectations of self or by others
- Instant access to highly effective means of suicide (96+% use firearms)
Other possible causes of depression: genetics, critical incident trauma, cumulative trauma, and even repeated adrenaline dumps.
During an emergency situation, adrenaline dumps into a person's system and allows him/her to respond with speed, strength, and focus. "However, too much and too often, it's poison to your body that has negative effects on a person's physical and emotional well-being" (LawOfficer.com).
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may be caused by a single critical event or cumulative trauma. Officers who suffer from PTSD may become depressed or even suicidal. "There's no excuse for law enforcement administrators not to (be) making sure officers are followed closely for at least two years after an incident" (AAETS.org).
Like depression, PTSD is treatable. Affected officers will need both a knowledgeable physician/psychiatrist, and a therapist who understands how to work with police officers (AAETS.org).
"So why don't officers simply go to their departments for help? Because they not only do not want to be seen as weak, but also do not want to be put on leave, reassigned to desk duty, have their gun taken from them, have other officers talk disparagingly about them, or be passed up for promotions in the future" (Suicide.org).
Officer.com presented a podcast interview of Ron Clark, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Badge of Life. He talked about the 2012 BOL study and how to promote mental wellness and prevent suicides. "The scandal in law enforcement is that not one department has ever said...the job has caused the officer to commit suicide" (Officer.com/podcast).
In the moving video, "Police Suicide, Where is the Piper?" BOL shares the words often spoken at law enforcement memorials: "It is not how they DIED that made them heroes, it is how they LIVED."
Despite these words, there is no big ceremony for a fallen officer who took his own life. No place on the National Law Enforcement Memorial. For an officer who commits suicide, it suddenly becomes a matter of how he/she died that matters. This appears to be another symptom of the unhealthy view many in law enforcement take toward mental illness and mental wellness.
The BOL suggests that police tend to their mental health as they do, hopefully, to their physical health. In a second video, "Police Suicide and HOPE," the BOL recommends annual mental health checks. They want officers to tend to their mental wellness before they have an issue.
These are signs that someone may be suicidal and in need of help:
- Talks about suicide
- Makes statements related to hopelessness or helplessness
- Has a preoccupation with death
- Shows a loss of interest in things he/she once cared about
- Makes detailed arrangements related to insurance and finances
- Gives away valued or prized possessions
Hopefully there are resources within a department that officers feel safe to turn to for help. Otherwise, direct them to local or national help lines.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK 
Janice McCarthy lost her husband, a Massachusetts State Trooper, to suicide. She now addresses police groups about preventing suicides and the danger of viewing depression as a weakness. "Don't deny the fact that you're human," she said. "Yes, you're cops. But you're human" (APBweb.com).
American Police Beat, "Confronting Police Suicides," APBweb.com, (accessed 1-22-2013).
Brown, Hal, "The Effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on the Officer and the Family," AAETS.org, (accessed 1-23-2013).
Caruso, Kevin, "Police Suicide Prevention and Awareness," Suicide.org, (accessed 1-22-2013).
Clark, Ron, RN, MS, and Andy O'Hara, "2012 Police Suicides: The NSOPS Study," Policesuicidestudy.com, 1-4-2013.
Kulbarsh, Pamela, "Police Suicides Drop in 2012," Officer.com, 1-9-2013.
Peluso, Paul, "Officer Newscast: 2012 Police Suicides Study," Podcast, Officer.com/podcast, 1-16-2013.
Wasilewski, Mike and Althea Olson, "Depression in Law Enforcement," Lawofficer.com, 8-10-2010.