In the past week, four Los Angeles Sheriff Department Officers committed suicide within a 24-hour period. In this past year, there have been 9 suicides in the same department. We can point to the fact that there has been a significant shortage in staff in this specific department which has caused officers to have to work a great deal of overtime.
The Silent Struggle
However, the real story is the amount of trauma, stress, and PTSD that are carried by so many officers. As a normal part of their job, they meet us at our worst moments. They’re called to resolve domestic fights, are the first responders to murders and mass shootings, and deal with some of the most horrific incidences one should have to witness. They’re expected to navigate the investigative procedures and remain calm and mentally balanced. Yet, the reality is they respond to stress just like many of us, and are struggling to process what they so often witness, particularly in areas where violence is prominent.
Police serve in a profession afflicted with a 54% higher risk for suicide compared to the U.S. population, according to a study by John Violanti, research professor at University of Buffalo Department of Public Health and Health Professions and an internationally known expert on law enforcement stress. He refers to them as the “silent culture” in their profession. Who do they turn to when they are emotionally or mentally compromised and overwhelmed by all they feel about what they are experiencing?
Understanding the Mental Health Challenges of Officers
Most officers are resistant to get the help they need for fear of consequences to their job. Someone who is trauma-impacted is not one who their supervisors want to put on the street with a gun. Also, similar to military personnel, it’s a stigma to admit you’re struggling. Officers are expected to be tough and bear the tragedies they witness without allowing it to cause any internal reactions. It’s just not normal to witness what they do without consequences.
I remember having a brief fender bender where two suburban officers were called to my accident. I began to speak to them about their job and they told me they had just come from a suicide that very morning. I could tell they were shaken since the person was quite young. I was able to give them some perspective about what they were feeling. I realized they were primed and ready to process what they had witnessed, but had to quickly continue their daily routine.
Prioritizing Officer Mental Health
Four suicides are called a “cluster.” It is a part of what is known as a suicide contagion in high-risk populations like law enforcement. They should have mental health check-ins on a regular basis by licensed professionals and have groups available to process their stress.
They should not be in positions where their jobs are in jeopardy or they’re stigmatized by the realities of what they face each day. We are so thankful when they respond to our crises and needs, but we must also advocate for their support when confronted with the number of tragedies so many of them face each day.