Just recently I received a message from a close friend. Most all of us have gotten it, and for me the frequency has become alarming, heartbreaking, and hard to swallow. It usually comes in a text or a call or email. That dreaded message is usually sent in the form of a question. It starts off like this, “Hey, man have you heard about so-and-so from such and such?” Yep. It never ends up being anything close to good.
Never is it news about winning the lotto, marrying a model, or winning a free trip to the Super Bowl. (Around here the only good that comes that way is, “Did you hear about the 10 point bubba shot in Llano on public land?” And those are rare!) So you know what’s coming …
The friend that sent me the message was heartbroken about a brother law enforcement officer that had taken his own life. In this case, the deceased had lived down the street from that officer. Although he had only met him once or twice, like me, we had worked as “neighbors” in local law enforcement community for more than 15 years. When we talked about what was bothering my friend the most was that he had had a beer with the deceased only a few weeks before his death. This friend of mine is just as experienced as any veteran with 20 years and smarter than most in my opinion. He couldn’t understand how was not able to see any outward signs of depression or indication that this guy was struggling inside.
After many years at this job, we know that when someone has made that decision to end their earthly existence—well, there’s not much others can do to stop that round once sent. Many have come to accept that, but should we?
I work nights, so we are usually the last to any news from the law enforcement community. Well, this news was no different, so while speaking with my friend I checked social media basically for information about services. There were no less than 44,000 people “talking “about this incident on the internet. 44,000 …
That struck me, and my immediate reaction was frustration—probably not well founded because most were just being supportive and offering condolences to family. That frustration was not about huge outpouring of love and support, but the fact that this otherwise perfectly appropriate and heartfelt response came to late. If there was a way for us to generate a fraction of that response (of love and support) to someone and their family PRIOR to such a permanent tragic ending we could do something about this.
There’s no argument that we would take a bullet from a “bad guy” for a buddy, right? These lives and rounds are a little different. Some even know ourselves the darkness, or blinding emptiness, in that field of black beyond the thin blue line. We are well trained and suited better than most for this task of stepping up. But the decades of silence and insulation we usually afford each other for “protection” of privacy or even self-preservation is also the chink in our armor. We have to change this part of our police culture.
Let’s look at some of the statistics available. For such a deadly issue for cops (we commit suicide at an estimated 1.5 times rate of the rest of the U.S. population) there are not that many sources. The following is from BadgeoLife.com. They have been compiling data, until recently from a conglomeration of online media reporting and information.
POLICE SUICIDES BY YEAR- (badgeoflife.com) Compared to Line of Duty Deaths (National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund/ nleomf.org)
2008 – 141 2008 – 149
2009 – 143 2009 – 125
2012 – 126 2012 – 131
2015 (6 month period) – 51 (so approx. 102 total) 2015 – 123
(There is a current full-study being conducted for 2016 that will be published in the International Journal for Emergency Mental Health. Also note: Other sites and studies arrive at different totals based on criteria and reporting.)
Just based on those statistics alone, we are taking our own lives at near the same rate as total annual LODDs! Just consider the many hazards we face each day. We must not only survive and back each other up on the job, but we must survive and back each other up from the threat from within. This is not an easy issue to address. But I hope we can agree that there’s room for improvement.
What should we do when we hear that someone is struggling with their divorce or finances or drinking or something other? (If you never known a co-worker with any of those issues, please forward me an application packet.) In the past we might give this person space or cover for them when they are not performing at 100%.
There’s often fear and dread about going up the chain of command for help. Many department’s (including my own) may not have a chaplain program or confidential “inside” source for help, counseling, or recovery. We generally do not like pouring our hearts out to strangers in this line of work. But in my experience, this is far better than talking to no one at all. Sometimes it’s easier to talk with someone you don’t know. Cops don’t want to be called “weak” or catch a ride on a desk assignment. Many times it may be easier for some, speaking to someone they do not know. Most of the fear comes from being judged or labelled as week, or catching a ride on a desk.
We need to step back and be mindful for each other’s sake. The four hardest words for an officer to speak might just be, “I need help,” or, “I’m not okay.” Our culture needs to change in this regard. But take these two options in consideration.
Option A: Ask for or seek forgiveness from a recovering co-worker for having “spilled the proverbial pot of beans” to put them in touch with someone or in someplace where they can truly find help.
Option B: Forever seek forgiveness from yourself and that coworker’s family for actually giving them the “space” and “privacy” he/she needed during a rough spot.
When you look at this from a common sense standpoint … And when is more isolation (figuratively and literally) the proper response for someone already feeling isolated and alone? Option A is the only option.
Administrators and Supervisors: You should make any and all training available for their staff. Plan now to have the places and people available for officers to turn to when they need it. Give officers positive incentives for being honest and forthright about sensitive issues so that they may professionally and compassionately work through them.
“Brothers (and sisters) don’t let each other wonder in the dark alone”–J. Perry
“Help your brother’s (or sister’s) boat across and your own will reach the shore”–Hindu Proverb
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