Help and Hope for Officers Struggling With Traumatic Stress

These are uniquely challenging times for peace officers. 2020 has brought the anxiety and isolation of a global pandemic, the upheaval of nationwide protests and civil unrest, rising crime, demoralizing calls to defund or even abolish police, and skyrocketing tension between law enforcement and the communities they serve. That comes in addition to the already high levels of traumatic stress officers experience in the regular course of their work, all of which can place them at increased risk for emotional injury, depression and suicide. As we observe National Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month this September, LAAPOA reminds members and our law enforcement brothers and sisters to be extra mindful of mental health pressures, the warning signs to watch out for, how to support those who are struggling, and how to get help if you need it.

Given the silence that has surrounded this issue for far too long, it’s difficult to know exactly how many officers we’ve lost to suicide. According to the nonprofit Blue HELP, 1,251 law enforcement suicides have been reported since 1956, but it’s likely the true number is far greater. We do know that a record-breaking number of officers died by suicide in 2019, more than all other line-of-duty deaths that year combined. This doesn’t necessarily mean suicides are increasing — it may signify that the stigma is being broken and more are being reported. But it does show that officers need to be just as alert to their mental health on the job as they are to physical dangers such as shootings, car accidents and heart attacks. Whether it’s PTSD tied to a specific event or the accumulation of day-to-day stress over time, emotional injuries can be life-threatening.

While there are many ways traumatic stress can manifest, here are some of the signs that indicate someone may be at risk for suicide, according to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
  • Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or isolating themselves
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Extreme mood swings

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of a mental health crisis, it’s important to address it. The National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests the following list of approaches to help:

  • Talk openly and honestly. Don’t be afraid to ask questions like: “Do you have a plan for how you would kill yourself?”
  • Remove means such as guns, knives or stockpiled pills
  • Calmly ask simple and direct questions, like “Can I help you call your psychiatrist?”
  • If there are multiple people around, have one person speak at a time
  • Express support and concern
  • Don’t argue, threaten or raise your voice
  • Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong
  • If you’re nervous, try not to fidget or pace
  • Be patient

The most important thing to know about suicide is that it’s preventable. It’s a temporary state of mind, not an inevitability. It’s usually tied to a life event that feels like an insurmountable catastrophe to the person who is suffering it, but that perception is rarely true. In the moment, a suicidal person may simply be desperate for their pain to end and feel like they have no other options. That’s why asking how someone is doing, listening with compassion and without judgment, and encouraging them to seek help are some the most powerful things you can do for a colleague, friend or family member in crisis.

Unfortunately, sharing feelings has not been a hallmark of traditional law enforcement culture, and many officers must still overcome denial, taboos and fear of professional repercussions if they are open about their emotional struggles. But that is slowly changing, and agencies and policymakers are increasingly recognizing the importance of supporting officers’ mental health. For instance, the federal government passed the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act of 2017, which requires the Justice Department to identify mental health services and practices and develop model policies that could be adopted by state, local and tribal agencies. And last year, California enacted SB 542, which allows first responders to seek workers’ compensation for post-traumatic stress caused by their jobs.

“There has been great progress in recognizing and addressing the mental health risks that peace officers face in the performance of their duties, but there is still much more that can be done, and LAAPOA will continue to advocate for laws and programs that provide the support needed to prevent and overcome on-the-job trauma,” President Marshall McClain says. “LAAPOA voiced the need for and helped to ensure that an agreement was established with LAPD’s Behavioral Science Services (BSS) to provide all sworn and civilian members of the Los Angeles Airport Police Department with access to confidential coaching, counseling and nutritional services. We plan to ensure that this is established for all departments that have LAAPOA members.”

BSS can help you improve your relationships, reinvigorate your marriage and establish or strengthen friendships. It offers individual, couples, addiction prevention and nutritional counseling services completely free of charge, on a confidential basis. For your convenience, there are three locations to serve you: in downtown LA, the Valley and the newly opened Westchester office at the Ahmanson Recruit Training Center. If you have a question or a friend in need, or want to make an appointment, please call (213) 486-0790.

“It’s important that we look out for and support each other,” McClain adds. “We see headlines every day about officers responding to mental health crises in the communities we serve and talking people down from committing suicide, and we need to remember to extend that same assistance to ourselves and our brothers and sisters. With everything going on today in the world of law enforcement, it can be too easy to feel like everyone is against us and no one cares. I want all of our LAAPOA members and fellow officers to know that they matter and are not alone. Suicide is not the answer. There is help available, and there is hope.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or other emotional stresses, please don’t stay silent. Here are just a few of the resources you can reach out to for help:

  • CopLine, a 24/7, 100% confidential helpline for officers and their families, answered by retired police officers: (800) 267-5463
  • Crisis Text Line, which connects you with a live, trained crisis counselor: Text BLUE to 741741
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress: (800) 273-8255