I’m not like them! I can handle it. I can’t understand why anyone would choose to be like this. Living on the street. The walking dead! Discarding friends, husbands, wives, children – their whole life! No, they’re not like me, and I’m not like them!
Has that thought ever crossed your mind – even for a second?
Well, for many, the last real choice they consciously made was that first time they picked up! Addiction is an explosive disease, not a choice, and many circumstances in life act as a catalyst toward igniting it. But as a narcotics professional, you know that! Narcotics officers must be well versed in the basic curricula of drug addiction in order to execute their job at the highest level and stay safe.
Hold that thought for a moment …
Among other things, I work with the intelligence community. I was eating lunch with a friend last week when I was made aware of a colleague from a federal agency who had decided to pull off to the side of the road on his way to work and end his life. Discarding his friends, wife, children – his whole life. That was a choice. The decision to take one’s own life does not necessarily have to be related to a disease or mental illness.
Unfortunately, society paints suicide with the same brush as a drug addiction or a prison sentence. (1) It’s a negative brand, just like crime, and society holds law enforcement (LE) to a higher standard than that. There is an expectation that LE officers are somehow above these things – immune. But that is not the case. In 2018, 159 LE officers took their own lives, while 150 were killed in the line of duty. (2) The numbers look similar for the year before that, and the year before that, too. (2,3) And it shouldn’t be surprising that the number of officers self-reporting substance abuse issues is also on the rise. (4)
If you dig into the academic literature, you will see similarities in the writings that cite some of the root causes of suicide in
THE CALIFORNIA NARCOTICS OFFICER (Summer, 2019)
the LE community as constant exposure to trauma, continually dealing with victims, the incessant bombardment of negative media and the toll of shift work, among other things. (1,2,3) These are all legitimate contributors, and although departments nationwide have taken giant steps toward caring for the overall health and well-being of their officers, there is very little data on effective prevention strategies, and even less on why more officers don’t recognize a potential personal crisis and ask for help. (3) Or perhaps they do recognize it?
All too often we emphasize the dangers of police work, but LE culture does not allow for weakness of any kind – physical or psychological – and the stigma attached to substance abuse and suicide in LE is possibly the greatest obstacle we must overcome. The reluctance of departments to provide accurate statistical data on LE suicides suggests that the number cited above may actually fall short of the tragic reality. (4)
When I reflect on my career, with hindsight being 20/20 , I can recall several members of the LE family from my past who perhaps subconsciously were asking for help. I had the privilege to work through issues with some, while for others, the vast majority of those memories, I did not. There are things that anybody can do to bring these statistics down toward the ultimate baseline number of zero. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to talk!
If you have been feeling unusually depressed, tell a friend or colleague about it. If you notice your partner hasn’t been on their game, ask them if everything is OK. Have an honest conversation with someone you trust. Most of all, be one of those people who help create a work environment where we recognize and accept that the multiple impacts of an extremely stressful profession can exact a toll on anyone at any time, especially when it’s least expected.
You have often heard, “As the world adapts, so must we.” Never has there been a time when this statement has been more foretelling. Don’t choose to be like “them.”
If you or a fellow officer are in need of help, visit www. badgeoflife.org or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255) .
Frazer Thompson, P.E ., is a suicide interventionist, substance abuse counselor and equine therapist. He is currently defending his doctoral dissertation at Northcentral University. His area of expertise is the marginalization of certain cultures in the Middle East and the Palestinian-Isra eli relationship. He is a member of CNOA Region I. CNOA
- Fuller, “5 Common Myths About Suicide Debunked.” National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), www.nami.org.
- Vargas, J . “More Police Officers Committed Suicide Last Year Than Were Killed in Line of ” Behind the Badge, http://www.behindthebadge .com.
- Violanti, “Police Officer Suicide.” Criminology and Criminal Justice (2018).
- Hayes, “Silence Can Be Deadly: 46 Officers Were Fatally Shot Last Year. More Than Triple That – 140 – Committed Suicide.” USA TODAY, www.usatoday.com.