August 24th, 2012

Police officers at higher risk of suicide

In 1976, a 35-year-old Connecticut State Police trooper stopped by Ron Clark’s office to talk. No sooner had he closed the door, the trooper’s radio went off, summoning him to a call.

That night the trooper killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage. He left no suicide note.

The tragedy led the Connecticut State Police to launch what became the first Employee Assistance Program/Medical Unit inside a police department in the country. Clark, a registered nurse and military veteran before becoming a state trooper, became the unit’s commander.

“There were no signs. I spoke to all of his fellow troopers and the CO,” recalls Clark, now a retired sergeant after 23 years of service with the state police and chairman of the board of Badge of Life, a non-profit that raises awareness about police stress, trauma and suicide and provides mental health training and educational programs.

“Nobody talked about police officers’ feelings. That was considered weakness,” Clark adds.

Research has suggested that police work can increase the risk for suicide, though statistics vary widely. Badge of Life conducted an Internet survey that counted 141 suicides by police officers in 2008 and 143 in 2009. That yielded a rate of 17 suicides per 100,000, compared to 11 per 100,000 for the general public and 20 per 100,000 for U.S. Army personnel. The rate showed a lower police suicide rate than previous studies but was three times the number of officers killed by felons, Clark says.

Badge of Life determined that officers ages 35-39 were at the highest risk of suicide as were those with 10-14 years on the job. The organization is contacting chiefs in departments with documented suicides to obtain additional data for another study. So far, they have had a 51 percent response rate.

Clark calls suicide “the tip of the iceberg,” adding that an estimated 15-18 percent of all officers experience some form of posttraumatic stress disorder. The organization advocates for police departments to encourage its members to seek voluntary mental health checkups just as they would an annual physical.

A suicide prevention program is taught as part of the yearly in-service academy training for all sworn state police personnel, says Sgt. Troy S. Anderson, state coordinator for the STOPS Program (State Troopers Offering Peer Support). Established in 2007, the program has recruited, trained and credentialed 93 dispatchers, troopers, sergeants and master sergeants assigned throughout the state to provide confidential and voluntary peer support during times of stress. Participants receive a 40-hour initial block of instruction on the allocation of law enforcement mental health resources, active listening skills, suicide prevention and critical incident stress management with additional quarterly in-service training. The STOPS Program has addressed more than 5,000 incidents in the past five years.

Some research suggests occupation is less a suicide factor compared to other predictors like substance abuse, relationship troubles, loss of social support and availability and access to a firearm.

“Police officers have the same problems we all have. They’ll all human beings. They have families. They have financial things to take care of. Add to that equation what they deal with on their job and what they see,” says John Violanti, a former New York state trooper and now associate research professor at the State University of New York-Buffalo.

Violanti was the keynote speaker at an August 2011 conference on suicide prevention for police officers at Central Connecticut State University organized after four Connecticut police officers committed suicide within a four month span.

Violanti found that in 93 percent of police suicides reviewed in 2009, officers used their own service firearms on themselves. New Jersey and California had the highest numbers of police suicides.

By Janine Weisman

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