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RISKS FOR SUICIDE


June 12, 2014
By Anotoon Leenaars

by Antoon A. Leenaars

Hosting the first Canadian national symposium on police suicide took real courage. I especially applaud Chief Rick Hanson and Dr. Adriana Celser of the Calgary Police Service (CPS) for their role in the May 22-23 event, which attracted some 200 police officers from across Canada.

More officers die by suicide than by felonious assaults and accidents combined. Silence has for too long been the only solution. We can no longer simply ignore the ever increasing numbers of police suicides and need to change what we can. The symposium was overdue and offered new hope that will help save officers’ lives.

Homicide-suicide among police is at epidemic levels and has been since first being recorded in the 1930’s. The IACP recently made the prevention of suicide among police a key objective. Not since the great suicide epidemic in New York in the 1930’s has there been such action.

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On behalf of CPS, Celser planned and organized the symposium. I was honoured to be a keynote speaker. The speakers were excellent. Here are some of my personal notes of the event.

In opening the conference Hanson noted that three CPS officers have taken their lives since 2007. Being a police officer puts a person at risk, he told attendees.

“People in our profession see things and deal with things that most people never see or experience. It’s got an impact.”

Family members and officers told Hanson after the deaths that he wasn’t doing enough. We may think we are doing everything, he noted, but we never are. The CPS has peer support and psychological services and, although suicide is not an epidemic, Hanson said there is more that it can do. The symposium, in response to the deaths, is an obvious example. It takes courage, he concluded. There is too much helplessness.

I began my speech by asking the following questions:

  • Are rates of suicide in police high?

  • Why do suicides and homicide-suicides occur?

  • Are suicide and homicide related?

  • Why in the police?

  • What are the individual, relational, social, cultural and environmental factors?

  • Does an emotional disorder (psychopathology) increase risk? Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Alcoholism?

  • Does police work-stress, divorce, domestic violence and a multi-dimensional array of other factors cause risk?

  • What relationship issues are figural?

  • Does marital situation have an impact? The “macho” (blue) culture? Does it create barriers to help-seeking (blue walls)?

  • Does gun availability increase risk?

There are further questions.

  • What is effective in treating police?

  • Can psychotherapy help?

  • What help is needed if an officer is suffering work-related PTSD?

  • What do police services need to provide?

  • What help is effective?

  • What are police barriers to wellness?

  • What can police services and communities do?

There are many questions; are there answers?

The presenters and audience offered many suggestions. Major Adrian Norbash, a psychiatrist and Canadian Forces Mental Health Clinical Lead asked whether police services provide the more extensive programs the military offers (See <Leenaars, 2013>.

Suicide and homicide-suicide in police are complex, multi-determined events. People are generally stressed and overwhelmed when they experience a suicide and even more so with a homicide-suicide. The most common response by survivors is that they can’t wrap their head around it. Predictive, like suicide, homicide-suicide is difficult to understand.

There are at least two reasons: the very complexity of these events and the fact that suicide is a low frequency event (occurrence) in police, and homicide-suicide in police is also low (or is it?). We need to study the occurrences.

In the field of suicide research (suicidology), the intensive retrospective psychological study of a case (occurrence) is called a psychological autopsy (PA). The last detailed PA was the 1930’s New York epidemic.

I presented verbatim one occurrence, “Report to the London Police Service and London Community on the Deaths of David Lucia and Kelly Johnson” (Retrieved from the web page of the London Police Service, www.police.london.ca). I highly encourage you to read it. I said, of course, many more things; all presenters did (the Power Points are available from CPS).

In helping to plan the event, I told Celser the most important speakers would be the fellow officers, the buddies. Cst. Raymond Wong, Calgary Police Association, opened the sharing by speaking of the impact of the deaths of the three officers. Two officers told their powerful stories. There was silence in the room and understandably, some tears.

Suicide, one officer said, causes fear, guilt and helplessness. I learned a long time ago that the surviving officer’s story is the heart and soul of breaking the silence of suicide among police. This story (narrative) has to be told. There was no stigma at the symposium. Silence was broken.

The common stimulus in suicide is unbearable psychological pain, which never ends. The suicidal person is in a heightened state of perturbation, an intense mental anguish. They may feel any number of emotions – boxed in, rejected, deprived, forlorn, distressed, shamed, disgraced (and especially) hopeless and helpless.

The hopelessness is that the pain will always be this way. Nothing can change. For example, “I will never get my service gun back. I am stuck on this desk job forever. It is no job for an officer. I am worthless”.

The helplessness is something like “There is nothing Chief Hanson can do. There is nothing Dr. Celser can do. There is nothing Cst. Wong can do. There is nothing any of you officers can do”. That is the helplessness of the suicidal officer… and after death, that pain becomes the pain of the survivor – all of us are stung! The skeletons live. We, understandably, become fearful, guilty and helpless.

{Stigma}

I later addressed the topic of stigma and police suicide. It is a HUGE risk factor. The Parliamentary Committee on Palliative and Compassionate Care invited me to address the topic nationally in February. I presented a document, “Stigma & Mental Illness: History & our Hope” (it’s in the public domain.)

People are generally perplexed, stressed, confused and even experience prejudicial reactions when they are confronted by mental illness, I began. There is a tremendous stigma attached to mental illness, psychopathology, psychiatric disorder, imbalance – whatever we may wish to call it.

Mental disorders have always fascinated, yet frightened people. There is a modicum of comfort in regarding the imbalanced as “different” from the rest of us “healthy” Canadians. We see mental illness as something another person is plagued with, or punished with, or jailed for. We are not responsible!

We, the sane Canadians – at least those who are sworn members of a police force – are immune to those sicknesses. “They” are sick, sick, sick.

There are many examples, allow me one from the 1930s. There was enormous stigma to having a mental disorder then, which is no different from today. On this, we read:

<One manner of handling the mentally or physically ill patrolman was to take him away from regular duty. This most frequently meant placing him on the duty called “raided premises,” which usually consisted of guarding raided houses or hotels used by prostitutes. The purpose appeared to be that of keeping prostitutes from again inhabiting the place. The patrolman sat quietly by himself in one spot for a full eight-hour shift.

In other instances, the recipient of light duty was given a simple errand or clerical job. In the case of both assignments, the average policeman felt much contempt for the job and condescending sympathy for those assigned to it. Some of our cases avoided and feared these assignments, saying, “I’ll be damned if I’ll cut paper dolls all day.” As one said, “It’s the next step to the nut house.”

One patrolman who felt that he was being “discriminated” against refused an inside assignment with the words, “That’s no job for a man.” In his disturbed behavior he thought people were claiming that he was “not a man.”> (Leenaars, 2010, pp. 84-85).

How many Canadian officers and civilian members feel this way? Estranged? Stigma is harm.

There were many other points. Not talking about mental illness will cause more imbalances. The “insane” were kept secrets; a societal blue shame! The problem was kept invisible. The main reason was stigma. One would hear, “Oh, Joe is a basket case” or “Sally is crazy”. It wasn’t acceptable to be mentally ill – all too often suicidal – or to get help. One study in Oslo, Norway, shows only 10 per cent of officers seek help. We need to change that now.

{What can we do about it?}

We explored many avenues; we must not be simple. We do not have to be helpless; we can help. Lives of officers have been saved! We don’t need to die by our own service pistol.

Celser opened the next day’s symposium by exploring relevant factors and the impact of suicide on police services. “Why should we be concerned?”, she asked. Many participants answered.

“By the very fact of being a chief, I am affected,” noted Hanson. “Like all officers, they are my responsibility”.

Celser offered many insights, showing how the chief can count on the psychologist and peer support. There is help. The quality of care, of course, from the chief, sergeant, psychologist, doctor and attendant, is crucial.

One fact was obvious: Everyone was affected by the deaths of their three fellow officers. This would be expected. Dr. Daniel Rudofossi, a former NYPD sergeant, has noted that the things officers see and deal with are beyond what is normal. These events are traumatizing and would “horrify, repulse, disgust and infuriate any sane person.” Why should this not be true for officers? Think Moncton!

There were many topics discussed, including alcohol abuse, availability of firearms, sleep and fatigue. My friend, Dr. Peter Collins, Forensic Psychiatrist, Criminal Behaviour Analysis Unit, Behavioural Sciences & Analysis Section, OPP, spoke about suicide by cop. I have worked with police forces on this topic; there is no question, it is traumatic. It understandably affects officers.

Collins noted that it occurs much more frequently than thought. No single factor causes it. There are also important differences between Canada and the US; in Canada, weapons are more frequently feigned and motor vehicles more often used as a weapon.

A panel I chaired, which included Hanson, Celser, Dr. Patrick Baillie, Collins, S/Sgt. Darrell Hesse, Sgt. Sergio Falzi, Dr. Cynthia Baxter and Cst. Raymond Wong, answered many questions. One could feel the energy in the air; it was hope. Among the questions:

  • What percentage of police suicides are related to PTSD? (Many.)

  • How often is alcohol a factor in police suicides? (80 per cent.)

  • An increasing number of therapists/psychologists/psychiatrists have raised concern that debriefings are not effective and exacerbate trauma symptoms. Is this true? (The panel agreed that this (i.e., the Mitchell socio-emotional type) is the case. Of course, this is all very different from operational debriefings.)

  • Have there been any studies done or data collected on retired law enforcement members and suicide? (No. There is a paucity of studies and data in general. We do not know. Studies are not allowed.)

  • Do you think the fish caught on a yellow 5 of diamond spoon are in fact suicides first? (The panel had varying opinions; I suggested that there was a different theory: it is suicide by fisherman.)

{Don’t give up}

I directed a special message to suicidal officers and civilians. “Don’t give up the fight. There is help… as you can see there is a chief, psychologist, buddy, fisherman and many who really want to help. There is hope. Persevere.”

Hanson concluded the meeting with high praise and a call to action. He returned to the question asked about studies on retired officers, promising to do something about the lack of Canadian research about police suicide. He committed to speaking to other Canadian chiefs and suggested a study could be done. This will make a HUGE difference.

Like any occurrence of interest, in forensic science and policing (there are many more similarities), once we understand something better, we can better predict and control it. We can prevent suicide among police!

{References}

Leenaars, A. (2010). Suicide and homicide-suicide among police. Amityville, NY: Baywood.

Leenaars, A. (2013). Suicide among the armed forces: Understanding the cost of service. Amityville, NY: Baywood.

BIO

Dr. Antoon A. Leenaars, , Ph.D., C.Psych., CPQ, is a Windsor forensic psychologist and the author (among many other publications) of and . Contact: draalee@sympatico.ca .