Law enforcement is a challenging profession. There are many different types of stress in policing that don’t exist in other industries, such as education, manufacturing or hospitality. Unfortunately, police suicide rates are subsequently on the rise.
What Causes Police Suicide?
A patrol officer is likely to handle a wide range of 911 calls for service during a standard shift. For example, a patrol officer may respond to emergencies such as drownings, shootings, robberies and other traumatic incidents that have both a psychological impact and physiological impact.
During a stressful situation such as a shooting, the level of cortisol – a stress hormone produced by the brain – rises in the officer’s bloodstream. This reaction to stress causes the officer’s heart rate and blood pressure to increase. Since police officers commonly respond to multiple emergencies throughout their shift, they will often have elevated cortisol levels multiple times a shift, which can have long-term effects on an officer’s mental and physical health.
There are also other forms of stress that officers may experience:
- Seeing traumatic incidents, such as death
- Dealing with internal politics and bureaucracy
- Handling negative public perceptions of the police
If police stress is not addressed and managed properly, it can lead to police suicide. According to Tactical Emergency Medicine, police officers have a 54% increase in suicide risk in comparison to civilians. The risk of police suicide further increases if the officer goes through other stressful problems outside of work, such as marital problems or financial problems.
Warning Signs of Police Officer Stress
Aside from a police officer’s family members, coworkers are often in the best position to recognize if a colleague is highly stressed and at risk of suicide. Ideally, supervisors and coworkers should keep an eye out for other police officers who have major changes in their attitude or behaviors. Increased hostility toward the public or toward themselves is an indicator that police officers are feeling stress.
[Related article: Recruiting and Hiring the Next Generation of Police Officers]
Verbal statements can also indicate a problem with stress. For instance, these types of statements should serve as warning signs to other police officers:
- “I don’t care anymore.”
- “I have nothing to lose.”
- “I feel overwhelmed.”
- “I’ve been having nightmares about [a traumatic event that occurred in the field] and can’t sleep.”
What to Do When a Police Suicide Appears Imminent
One of the biggest indicators that a police officer is suicidal is the giving away of important personal possessions. If a police officer is getting rid of valued items, coworkers should ask open-ended questions to ensure that the officer is doing okay and is managing stress effectively.
When there are indicators that a fellow police officer may be suicidal, others should remain with the officer, lead him or her to help, and remain a source of support without displaying judgment or disbelief. Some police officers have difficulty in admitting that their stress has led to substance abuse or suicidal ideation, but if they do, they are reaching out for help.
Mental Health Resources for Police Officers
There are a lot of valuable resources available for police officers who struggle with stress or are suicidal. While anyone can call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, there are other organizations specifically designed to support the police community.
For example, Blue H.E.L.P. offers an officer hotline at 1-800-267-5463. This service provides first responders with assistance in finding crisis-specific help.
Another resource is COPLINE® at 1-800-267-5463. COPLINE uses trained, retired officers who can engage with callers, whether those police officers are simply struggling with police stress or are in a full blown mental health crisis. They also connect callers with competent resources.
Police Suicide Remains an Ongoing Problem in Our Society
Police suicide remains an ongoing problem in our society. When officers suffer from police stress, they should be encouraged to reach out for help, either through an employee assistance program, a counseling service, or other support service. Getting help as soon as possible will help an officer to mitigate his or her stress before it builds to where the officer is at risk of suicide.