The news underscores the tragedy of that attack and its impact on law enforcement. But it also highlights a much broader problem that deserves urgent attention: the high rate of suicide among police officers.
Law enforcement officers are 54 percent more likely to die by suicide than the average American — and in the United States, that national rate is already high. Suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in this country in 2019. And police officers are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
This may be a challenging moment for the country to collectively exhibit the sympathy needed to meet the mental health needs of police officers. Yet as the men and women entrusted to protect our communities and expected to put their lives on the line, they deserve nothing less. This is essential not only for officers’ mental health and safety but also for the well-being of our communities.
Suicide is complex and unique in every case, yet there are common risk factors to watch for, including experiencing traumatic events, easy access to lethal means and the stigma associated with asking for help. Police officers not only have greater exposure to trauma and greater access to lethal means, but they also experience more unpredictable and threatening situations.
Making matters worse, police officers, as a group, are often not inclined to acknowledge, report or seek help for either their own mental health issues or those of their colleagues. They may even fear job insecurity if they do ask for help. Further, although many law enforcement officers receive training on how they can safely engage and support people in the community during a mental health or addiction crisis, rarely is that training focused on supporting the officers themselves.
Undoing this stigma requires those in leadership to transform the culture. No single intervention or training will dramatically reduce suicide among police officers. As part of the Education Development Center’s work to address mental health and suicide among a variety of front-line providers, we have partnered with the International Association of Chiefs of Police to create the National Consortium on Preventing Law Enforcement Suicide Toolkit. Three critical recommendations from the tool kit are creating a culture that addresses the impacts of trauma, making it okay to ask for help and ensuring access to skilled providers.
Key to this work is battling the notions that officers should not show vulnerability and should be able to address all their emotional needs on their own. We must also fight the misconception that those who struggle with depression, anxiety or even traumatic histories cannot be effective in law enforcement roles. Many law enforcement agencies across the country have created officer wellness and resilience programs to do this; such programs must continue to grow and improve.
Ultimately, to save the lives of those who are responsible for saving our lives, we must create spaces for police officers to talk openly about suicide. Everyone who works in law enforcement — in any position — and their families must be prepared to compassionately ask their loved ones and colleagues about thoughts of suicide without judgment and with the knowledge of how to get them the help they need.
We must all get comfortable with asking the question: “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” For our police officers and for all of our families, it’s time to start broaching these conversations.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor at 741741.