The world of depression and suicide is a dark, murky one that’s hard for “outsiders” to understand. No one truly wants to die—that defies the human instinct to survive and continue on. Depression, however, is a heaviness that suffocates, that darkens the sun and casts the person into a seemingly eternal, turbulent night. Unrelenting depression and anxiety lead to the conclusion that suicide is the only escape from a life that has come completely undone. Suicide, which is depression and despair out of control, is akin to standing on a burning floor in the World Trade Center. The floors below you are consumed and the flames are licking at your back as you stand at the window. You have only one of two choices—to either burn a slow and terrible death or jump from the window to escape the pain. That’s what suicide is—an attempt to escape a pain that seems as bad as burning in a gasoline fire for eternity. Standing at ground level, how would you judge this person? You have no such right—because you’re not standing on the window ledge hearing the screams behind you and feeling the flames licking at your back.
An average of ten police officers commit suicide every month across the country. The overwhelming majority do it with their handguns. It’s estimated that as many as 15 to 18 percent of law enforcement personnel are suffering from symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, which often go hand in hand. There is always a possibility that, in addition to encountering a potential suicide among the public, you could find yourself facing the same situation with an actively suicidal armed comrade.
Let’s look at that worst case scenario.
The one thing that is hard for the suicidal person to understand is that there really is refuge from the pain. To communicate this calls for compassion, empathy, and an effort to assure the person that they are not alone. This is best accomplished by showing the person you understand the dynamics of depression and suicide and that you realize suicide seems, for the moment, to be the “only way” to escape the pain of what is troubling them. Above all, let the person talk. Listen—use empathetic listening skills. Don’t label or judge the person for what they say.
Don’t be afraid to use words like, “caring,” and “accepting.” Don’t be afraid to show an officer that you truly care about them. Let the compassion show in your voice. The right words are important when you talk. It is imperative that the person understand that, regardless of what has brought them to this stage, they can survive it and be cared for in a healthy way by others who have “been there” and/or who dedicate their lives to helping others. As one psychologist put it, “There is no such thing as no hope.” Let the suicidal person know that there is not only hope, but that their life is important to you. Avoid saying things like, “You have so much to live for,” “Your suicide will hurt your family” or, worse, “Look on the bright side.” Don’t say he’s “Letting his department down.” Stay away from patronizing statements like, “Suicide is just a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” These only open up arguments. Again, empathy and the offer of caring, professional help are crucial.
Unless you’ve actually “been there,” don’t say, “I know what you’re feeling.” Instead, show compassion by telling them something neutral and encouraging like, “I understand what you’re saying.”
If a peer support officer is available, particularly in the case of an individual in law enforcement, take advantage of them either directly or in an advisory capacity. These officers are often trained in the symptoms of suicide and how to talk with a potential victim. They may already be familiar with the officer and his problems. If your department has a police chaplain or even a departmental psychologist available and you have time, they can be of aid also.
In the event the officer shows signs of being a danger to others with their weapon, take a position of safety and clear the area before engaging them any further. In such cases, try to use an alternate means of communication, such as the telephone. If it’s an officer in his home or a cell is his primary phone, Dispatch will have the number.
Most importantly, listen. Allow the officer to vent his emotions, fears and anger and encourage him to talk about his motives for suicide. Time is on your side—use it. If they show any openness at all to alternatives, take advantage of it and keep them talking about them. Remember, the suicidal person often feels cornered, trapped and isolated. Your job is to help them feel included—and part of the solution. Your goal, in the end, is to get the actively suicidal person in for treatment. This may be an inpatient psychiatric hospital or an emergency room, whichever is the most feasible.
Suicide is a complex issue and many of these steps apply to the general public as well. Law enforcement, however, is one of the most toxic, caustic work environments conceivable and, given that fact and that kind of exposure, there is always a possibility that you will be in a position to aid a fellow officer and keep them from pulling the trigger. Look again at the statistics.
They don’t lie.
Andy O’Hara is the founder and a board member of the Badge of Life organization. Andy has co-authored one book and has written numerous articles for publication. He is an advanced peer support officer, working with individuals to find appropriate help and ways to deal with law enforcement issues. Andy is a 24-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol, was suicidal and retired with PTSD.