Countless officers have shared stories of wanting or needing to seek help for life stressors, relationship and financial problems, the things they have seen on the job, and often for substance abuse issues. However, the stories that truly break my heart are those in which an officer needs to seek mental health assistance, but they fear the backlash. You actually get them to the point of contemplating getting help and then comes the fear. The fear of everything they believe will hinder them on the other side, like not being eligible for promotions, prime assignments, and most importantly the support of their fellow officers. Many of these officers who need help sit in silence. They literally fear losing their jobs, being stripped of their gun and badge, they worry about their futures, and they worry about how they will be viewed.
Say what you want…this is not irrational fear. Anyone who has been in law enforcement long enough knows we often EAT OUR OWN. I then have to ask…when did we become the wolf? See, sheepdogs do not eat their own. In fact, a sheepdog who would harm even the meekest sheep among them would, as Lt. Col. Grossman says “…be punished and removed.” The sheepdog does at times have to keep the wolf at bay and is equipped to do so. The sheepdog may have to engage the wolf in order to protect the herd, that is what sheepdogs do. So, I have to go back and ask if the sheepdog is to protect the sheep, are they also to protect other sheepdogs?
The idea that a fellow officer would fear seeking assistance is not only sad, it is senseless, and keeps many of our brothers and sisters from getting the help they need. The culture that protects us is also used to shield us from receiving help – even if just in our mind. And this same culture protects and shields this “bad” behavior, this wolf pack mentality.
When we receive word of another officer suicide, I hear “why didn’t they just reach out, why didn’t they come to me for help.” Why? Because they fear that they will be eaten. They fear what will be said about them – to their faces and behind their backs, they fear how they will be treated, and they fear how this will affect their personal and professional lives and their families.
Look, we fear getting help, and understandably so. We have trust issues, we don’t know what will happen if we choose to reach out. It can be terrifying to essentially put everything on the line and hope for the best. However, no matter how much fear there is in seeking out help, what we often fear more is how we are seen by our peers. We fear rejection, isolation, and not being a part of the brotherhood/sisterhood – or not feeling like a part of it.
Officers, often to a detriment, identify by their role as a police officer. Their lives are often defined by or around their careers (whether they admit it or not). Feeling as though you have given every ounce of yourself to protect and serve, and yet feel as though you haven’t quite given them all of you. You give so much that the fear of being shunned by those you call brothers and sisters can be heart-wrenching, and in some cases too much to bear.
I’ve heard about officers who sought help for mental health issues and upon returning to work were ostracized. Some would say that they did not get adequate backup to calls, some would eventually leave the profession because of the toll it took on them, some would find new work, and sadly, others would go on to take their own lives.
We cannot go around continuously blaming the job, the stress, trauma, PTSD, and leadership for not speaking out on why we are continually dealing with the issue of officer suicide. This is not an issue that can be addressed simply. Changing minds and the culture about how we deal with this issue is going to be the most difficult part. However, none of this will matter if officers cannot feel comfortable in reaching out for help because they fear being eaten.
Dr. Olivia Johnson holds a master’s in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and a doctorate in Organizational Leadership Management from the University of Phoenix, School of Advanced Studies. Dr. Johnson is the Founder of the Blue Wall Institute and 1 Is Too Many. She is a veteran of the United States Air Force, a former police officer, and published author. She belongs to numerous professional organizations and recently completed a three-year term with the St. Clair County Suicide Prevention Alliance as a Suicidology Researcher. Dr. Johnson speaks on wellness and resilience for the Bureau of Justice VALOR Program and is on the Advisory Board regarding curriculum review for de-escalation training and techniques. Dr. Johnson currently works as a Senior Research Associate with the Institute for Intergovernmental Research. Correspondence can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org