Written by Citizens Behind the Badge.
Up until very recently, there was little talk about a hidden truth in law enforcement: Many more officers die by suicide than are killed by firearms, traffic-related incidents, or any other cause.
Over the three-year period before the COVID-19 pandemic (2017-2019), an average of 179 officers died annually either by felonious or accidental line of duty causes, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. During that same period, there were an average of 224 officer deaths by suicide each year, according to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit organization that tracks police suicides.
Upon reflection, it is easy to understand why police officers might commit suicide at such a high rate — 54% higher than the average person. In law enforcement, we are exposed to everyone else’s roller coaster of life, not to mention our own.
While we get the honor to serve others, we also experience the worst life has to offer, from car crashes and domestic violence to death and violence against others, and even violence against ourselves. It does not help that after putting our lives on the line every day, we are often denigrated in the media and frustrated by our nation’s revolving-door criminal justice system.
One of the problems associated with police suicide is that very little hard data were available prior to 2017. That’s when Blue H.E.L.P. took on the task of collecting the data. Soon after, in 2021, a federal law authored by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) was enacted, requiring the FBI to begin gathering data on police suicides and attempted suicides. And last year, Congress took another major step that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
It enacted the Public Safety Officer Support Act of 2022, which made the families of officers who died by suicide eligible for federal death benefits, so long as their death is found to have been linked to their official duties and exposure to a traumatic event.
Much of the current research around law enforcement mental health challenges and the decrease in officer well-being is related to trauma. While the average person will experience four to six traumatic events in his or her lifetime, a police officer will experience approximately 20 per year and 400-600 throughout his or her career.
Trauma response changes the way the brain processes information, especially when the trauma itself is not properly processed. Much of this is related to how we store the information and how it is then revisited over time.
This is concerning for police officers, other first responders, active military and veterans, doctors, nurses, and others who suffer in a similar way. But there is help, and individual well-being can be mitigated. There are many ways to heal, and you do not need to suffer in isolation.
Forming habits around positive interventions is the best way to start and costs nothing. Expressing gratitude, counting your blessings, goal setting, mindfulness and meditation, and physical exercise are some of the most basic and most proven ways to increase well-being. Storytelling has also been proven to promote healing in both the speaker and the listener.
More therapeutic interventions include taking a resiliency class, participating in peer support programs, and traditional therapy. If any other body part was injured, no one would suffer in pain without getting healing support from an external resource, why would you not seek the same treatment for your brain?
It is my belief that we all need to be accountable for our own well-being and that of our partners, squads, and departments. Officers do not need a title or rank to be a leader, and we should all hold ourselves accountable not only to represent the name on our chest but also the name on the patch on our shoulder. Train your brain the same way you would train your body because your community, department, partner, family, and you depend on it.
This op-ed was originally published in the Washington Examiner. Republished with permission.