Training to Prevent Police Suicide
A Continuum View
By Mary VanHaute
While no one would disagree on the value of educating officers in self-care, the warning signs of suicide, and seeking appropriate help, many disagree on the logistics for such education. Leaders within the law enforcement community may want to provide suicide prevention training; however, with mandatory training demands and limited resources, it becomes a low priority.
Here is an analysis of some viewpoints on the subject in a continuum format. Recommendations for implementing suicide prevention with minimal impact on training resources or funds conclude each analysis.
Gathering data on the effectiveness of a suicide prevention training program is a daunting task. It is not easy to measure what didn’t happen. Because data on the number of officers who died by suicide is nebulous and not gathered in the same manner as line-of-duty death, there is no baseline standard of measurement. Thus, measuring a reduction in death is also not easy. This concept may lead to the viewpoint that suicide prevention training is not a law enforcement issue, and leadership may rely on initiatives and programs outside the department presuming officers are receiving the information as part of the community at large. This is a big assumption and does not consider that programming for the general public may be ineffective for law enforcement.
On the other side of the spectrum is the thought that the root cause of police suicide comes from the endemic risk factors of the job, and suicide prevention awareness and training should be developed by officers for officers. In this line of thinking, the developers of the training may be unaware of existing research and data or become siloed in their thought process. A customized program can be beneficial, but it could lack flexibility, transferability, sustainability, and/or credibility regarding its effectiveness.
- Collaborate with local, state, and federal suicide prevention coalitions who use training programs with proven efficacy and endorsements. Adapt existing suicide prevention training to meet law enforcement needs.
- Emphasize to collaborators that your mission is to reduce death among officers, not to reiterate what law enforcement already does to reduce suicide in the community. Using an existing public health model and modifying it for law enforcement suicide prevention is a benefit to both the agency and the community it serves.
- Find a coalition near you by contacting your social services, health department, or visit https://www.sprc.org/states.
A cognitive trap that some leaders experience is the view that suicide prevention training is already covered in an existing support system such as psych services, chaplaincy, or EAP. A high-functioning support system for officers should have components that lead to overall good health. Yet leadership should not assume that suicide prevention training is provided by the system. Most often these facets are complementary to suicide prevention but do not replace it. For example, resiliency training provides officers with tools to develop pre- and post-traumatic growth. That is upstream suicide prevention and will hopefully keep an officer from heading into acute crisis. Suicide prevention training should be a stand-alone product that works in cohort with existing services such as peer support, CISM, and mental health screening.
The opposite view is the absence of a suicide prevention programming and assuming it is not necessary. If a department has not experienced a suicide or leadership believes the climate is healthy enough to ward off a threat, this viewpoint is understandable. Yet it could be fatal if it leads to cognitive restriction, “It can’t happen here.” To counteract this viewpoint, examine the data on suicide in the US. A synopsis reveals the highest number of suicides occur in white males between 35 and 60. Statistically, anywhere there is a population that meets that criteria, the risk of suicide is elevated. Does your agency match this demographic? Then factor in life-altering events in a law enforcement career during this age span that exacerbate the risk. Suicide is an equal-opportunity form of death. It knows no boundaries. It can happen anywhere.
- Experience the support services of your department. Call the number you provide to personnel to see if it is cumbersome. Visit the EAP website to see if it is intuitive and helpful. Ask for a tour of the facilities. Remember that you expect personnel to use these services in time of crisis and they may not be thinking clearly.
- Examine the guidelines, policies, or curricula used by peer support teams, honor guards, chaplains, or department psychologists to understand how they integrate and to identify any gaps or barriers to the support.
- Think proactively, not reactively in terms of suicide prevention.
- Foster a climate of wellness with messages that promote seeking help as a viable option to problem solving.
- Send messages of hope on the effectiveness of early intervention rather than messages of despair that imply suicide is inevitable or part of police culture.
- Use discernment when receiving or repeating data about police suicide deaths. Rely on factual data from credible national sources and apply it to law enforcement.
- Implement some form of suicide prevention awareness by emersion into existing trainings and practices.This starts the conversation until time and resources are available to develop stand-alone training.
With heightened scrutiny of law enforcement, leadership might avoid adding another potential liability stemming from training that enters into the affective domain. Even tactical survival training for officers using tools and equipment has unknown variables impacting risk management. Therefore, emotional survival training could be seen as ripe for all types of liability. Hence the avoidance of law enforcement suicide prevention training. This viewpoint could also be seen as fiscally responsible as it requires no investment in development or procurement of a program.
On the other hand, having a suicide prevention program in place is a logical fit to any agency’s risk management plan. Suicide happens once every 12 minutes in the US, and there is no way to guard against it touching the lives of your officers or their families. Like other policies or procedures developed with the hope that they are never used (a line-of-duty death manual, for example), suicide prevention training equips officers with tools to minimize injury or death. Teaching emotional survival tactics in the same manner as other tactical skills, will keep personnel in tune to their surroundings, knowledgeable of the risk, and empowered to act.
- Consult with your municipality’s risk management personnel regarding suicide prevention. Get input from other vested parties such as the department’s insurance company, health care provider, occupational health nurse, and corporate counsel.
- Examine department policies that may have been designed for officer safety long before support services for emotional health were available. Are there policies on prescription drug use that are outdated and may prohibit an officer from seeking help? Is there a policy in place that requires an officer to relinquish their duty weapon, and if so, when was it last updated?
- Study trending articles that discuss awarding officers a disability for post-traumatic stress. Investigate why/how some states are streamlining the process for first responders to receive appropriate care. (State of Florida SB 376, for example.) How do these apply in your agency?
- Visit a colleague who has dealt with suicide death within the agency. The colleague might welcome the acknowledgment, and you can learn from their experience. If you have experienced a suicide in the agency, demonstrate your growth mindset by making it an educational tool.Could you write an article, address a regular meeting of administrators, or speak at an FBI NAA conference?Note:Always advise the officer’s family before speaking or writing about the death.
- Assess your own leadership style as it relates to this viewpoint. What is your bottom line? Are you prepared to defend your position if you had to deal with an officer suicide tomorrow? Tonight? Today?
These are only a few viewpoints designed to stimulate further investigation, discussion, and action. Suicide prevention is complex and multi-faceted. Yet that should not be a deterrent to getting started.
The next time you witness a huge American flag being unfurled at an event, watch the logistics of this huge project. Many people work together hanging on to their two-foot piece of responsibility knowing how vital it is to the big picture. Together they pull off an arduous task making it look seamless and flawless. We can do the same with law enforcement suicide prevention.
About the Author:
Mary VanHaute is a civilian member of the FBINAA Officer Safety and Wellness Committee. A suicide prevention educator and author, she specializes in law enforcement, fire, EMS, and corrections personnel. She combines her education/training with lived experience having grown up in a fire/EMS family, being married to a police officer, and finding growth in the suicide death of her brother Charlie, a career firefighter/medic. Contact her through LinkedIn, firstname.lastname@example.org, or 920-680-4710.
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