- Police officers are twice as likely to kill themselves as to be killed in the line of duty.
- To prevent someone from killing themselves, don’t mince words.
- Two crucial ways to intervene with a suicidal officer are to separate them from their weapons and to buy time.
- If you are dealing with a suicidal officer, take steps to protect yourself physically and emotionally.
September is Suicide Prevention Month. Witnessing some of the most traumatic scenes in society, police officers are at particularly high risk for suicide. In fact, cops are two to three times more likely to kill themselves than they are to be killed in the line of duty. Recently, I wrote about legislation that might have the unintended effect of encouraging suicide by police officers, rather than preventing it. I prefer to put my efforts into stopping suicide.
Do you know someone you believe is suicidal? I offer the following tips in the hopes of preventing one more tragic police suicide:
- Speak up. Don’t hesitate to talk openly about suicide. You can’t put the idea in anyone’s head if it isn’t already there. It can clear the air to raise the issue and call it for what it is without using euphemisms. Ask directly, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”
- Be assertive about your concerns. Find out what is causing so much pain that the suicidal person wants to stop living. Communicate your understanding that they are in great emotional pain, but clearly say that pain can be managed and that there are other ways to solve these problems besides suicide. Let your law enforcement officer (LEO) know that getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness, and that it takes guts to face your problems and yourself.
- If you’ve struggled with depression or hopelessness or had suicidal thoughts, be honest in describing your own experience. Talk about what specifically helped you get through troubled times.
- Assess the level of danger—the more specific the plan, the more imminent and potentially fatal. For example, John (not his real name) told his partner he had picked out a motel, written a note warning the motel staff to call the police before entering his room, written to his family, bought a tarp to keep his brains from splattering and bought a rifle because he didn’t want to use his duty gun. This was a dire emergency, requiring immediate intervention and hospitalization.Sandy (not her real name) who was on disability leave, confessed to her wife that she was thinking about suicide but didn’t want to kill herself impulsively. She had locked her weapons in a friend’s gun locker and put the key in a safe deposit box at a bank. Her wife was able to verify this. She alerted Sandy’s therapist immediately, and the therapist arranged to see Sandy the next day, increased their sessions, and arranged for a medication appointment.
- Separate the officer from his or her weapons. Remember, many officers have several weapons in addition to their duty gun.
- Do what you can to delay. Many suicidal individuals who recover from a suicide attempt or were stopped before completing it do not make another attempt. Rather, they are grateful for a second chance at life.
- Be prepared. If you are going to confront a troubled cop, plan in advance—have phone numbers available, take another friend along, or have someone standing by a telephone. Pick an appropriate time and place to raise your concerns—one that is private, comfortable, and unhurried. Unless the situation is urgent, it’s better not to talk to someone who has been drinking. Don’t leave them alone. Wait until they sober up.
- Prepare yourself for angry denial. In their muddled thinking, your LEO may believe it’s better to be dead than to have people think they were weak.
- Be direct, yet tactful. Avoid backing people into a corner by threatening them or delivering ultimatums. Suicidal people already feel as if their lives are out of control, and are not thinking clearly. In their despair, they may mistakenly believe suicide is the only way to get back into control.
- Give hope. Find out if this person has survived some past crisis. Sometimes, remembering they have been through tough times before helps people regain confidence and hope for the future. People are generally suicidal only for a limited time. If they can avoid self-destruction, they can go on to lead productive lives. Hope is the awareness that one has options.
- Create ambivalence. Bust the bubble that killing yourself is an okay thing to do. Make it hard to see suicide as a “victimless crime.” Name the people who will be affected by this person’s suicide. Children especially may be deeply damaged by losing a parent to suicide.
- Don’t try to cheer them up. Have you ever seen the bumper sticker that says, “Cheer up, things could be worse. So I cheered up, and sure enough things got worse?” Cheering up is different from giving hope. Attempting to cheer someone up may be well-intentioned, but it is almost guaranteed to backfire. The listener may feel that you simply don’t understand the depth of his or her despair.
- Intervention is the key to preventing suicide. The consequences of getting help to someone are never as permanent as the consequences of suicide. Having meaningful, supportive relationships and a therapeutic alliance with a mental health professional greatly reduces a person’s risk for suicide.
- Don’t argue, sermonize, or lecture a suicidal person. Try to see, in concrete terms, how and why this person has come to see things as they do—remember, rarely has a suicidal individual arrived at this point overnight.
- Respect your limitations. Sometimes there is no way to stop people from killing themselves. You cannot read another person’s mind. Cops are especially good at masking their feelings and intentions. It’s a professional tool.
- Do not make offers of help you cannot reasonably support. If you are troubled, overburdened with your own problems, or simply don’t care enough about this person, find someone who does. Refer this person to a police chaplain, a peer supporter, and/or a culturally competent mental health professional.
- People who kill themselves are responsible for their choices. One person cannot drive another to suicide except under the most extreme circumstances.
Suicide damages more than the person who died. If you can stop one person from taking their own life, you will be protecting the future well-being of the people around them for generations to come.
If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, or the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, see the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.