Police officers are at a higher risk of suicide than most other profession. I wish the statistics were wrong but they are not. Although some police services are mandating bi-yearly or yearly psychological check-ins for officers, many are not unless you are in a specialty unit. Some police services might offer support immediately following trauma-related incidences, but not all do.
The reality is, police officers are reluctant to get honest about mental health and addiction issues. For many officers, admitting you are struggling with mental health or addiction issues runs the risk of your gun being taken away, being assigned to desk duty, or being passed over for a promotion. Some might say that makes perfect sense for safety reasons but not everyone struggling with addiction or mental health issues is a harm to themselves or others. Is shaming and ostracizing really the solution?
Officers are reluctant to come forward and ask for help if they notice that things in their life are becoming unmanageable. They often suffer in silence, sinking deeper into the depths of despair until things do become out of control with addictions or suicidal thoughts. The check-ins with the psychologists that are sometimes part of policy might be an opportunity for the occasional person to ask for help or be recognized as needing help, but more often then not, officers know what to say to make it in and out of that door with a pass. This is by no fault of their own. I bring this awareness to light because police services need to do better to create a safe space that normalizes help-seeking behaviors, without the threat of destroying someone’s career.
Many officers that have come forward to disclose struggling with mental health or addiction issues will often have to deal with the lingering stigma long afterward, even if they get help. The lack of trust that gets projected becomes about whether you have what it takes to get a promotion or opportunity to work in a specialty unit. Asking for help can becomes a barrier of discrimination. The lingering thoughts behind management shifts to “can this officer stay sober” or “can they handle the pressure of this unit without crumbling since they already said they have struggled mentally in the past.”
There is no reward for coming forward, getting help, healing from trauma or moving beyond addiction. There are officers on duty with addiction and mental health issues afraid to ask for help because of the aftermath associated with it. The stigma that exist in police services is perpetuated by the notion that officers have it all together and are immune to mental health and addiction issues.
Police services and advocates have brought forth awareness campaigns and programs aimed to offer support to officers struggling, but continue to fail to address the issues of shaming and job consequences as a result of being honest. You cannot demonstrate compassion and empathy in a sincere way, while giving consequences. This is why some officers will try to seek help privately without the knowledge or support of their police organization. The problem in doing so is that self-care for mental health and addiction can often include a leave of absence, inpatient treatment or extended time away from the job. Without an explanation of their absence, officers run the risk of someone finding out, especially in smaller police organizations.
Policing is a stressful career where officers are exposed to things that the human brain is not normally equipped to deal with. It is the expectation of the job they choose to get into. With that expectation, there is the assumption that officers should be able to manage whatever cumulative traumas they witness or experience. Resources for preventative care, mental health wellness, and proactive health management may be available in some police organizations, but the police culture stigmatizes self-care and wellness as a sign of weakness. Employee Assistant programs have good intentions but the number of people accessing them do not match the number of people that could benefit from them.
Peer mentoring and support programs like Beyond the Blue have been aiming to shift the cultural stigma that exists within police organizations but the issue remains the same; the consequences of seeking help are just too much for some. While programs and services want to encourage officers to get help and send the message that they deserve to feel supported, officers who have had to deal with the consequences of getting honest, have felt anything but supported.
So how do officers maintain wellness on the job if the fear of getting help is too much? The reality is some just don’t. Some officers are on the job and not well. A few officers might find a way to get help and stay under management’s radar, but the consensus among many officers is that there is a risk to coming out of the mental health closet or sharing that you have addiction issues. The responsibility rests in Police Services Management. They must realize that their practices of how they deal with officers who come forward contribute to the problem. There are many reasons why an officer might struggle with mental health and addiction issues but Police Services Management need to begin to recognize their part in perpetuating the stigma that exists in police services that are killing our officers.