Andy O'Hara writing for The Marshall Project:
There is a code of secrecy around mental illness in police agencies across the nation, a code that is difficult to break through.
No federal agency keeps an official count of how many law enforcement officers commit suicide each year. That’s in part why I founded Badge of Life, a nonprofit that seeks to prevent police suicides. We’ve collected data in recent years and found that there are an average of 130 law enforcement suicides every year, or eleven per month.
More officers die of suicide than die of shootings and traffic accidents combined. It’s a problem that cries out for answers and remedies, but too many departments are reluctant to admit it exists, much less implement programs to address it.
While a few of the known deaths are publicly attributed to depression or PTSD, the overwhelming majority are listed as having “unknown causes.” Stigma — the fear that it will reflect negatively on a department or result in liability claims by the family — appears to be a motivating factor behind such vague information.
Based on 24 years experience on the job, I believe that work-related stress and depression are far more prevalent in police work than reports suggest. Law enforcement is one of the most toxic, caustic career fields in the world. But, while injuries like PTSD are increasingly acknowledged within the military, its prevalence in civilian police work goes virtually unnoticed.
Instead of continuing to ignore the problem, the law enforcement community needs to address mental health and suicide head-on, devising what they call a “cradle to the grave” approach for officers. Cadets in police academies must be informed of the emotional toll of police work and taught coping techniques.
Additionally, rather than advising officers to get help when they “need it,” it should be strongly encouraged that officers attend regular therapy sessions with a licensed counselor, whether it is through an employee counseling service or on the “outside” to assure confidentiality.
Finally, officers should be encouraged to go at least once a year to a therapist who is adept at dealing with stress and trauma in the same way they get an annual physical or dental check-up. That would give an officer the opportunity to see what has been working well emotionally for the past year, but also affords him or her a chance to see what has not.
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