The suicide of a police officer in Montgomery County, Maryland, this week is part of a surge in law enforcers across the country taking their lives, prompting police departments to address concerns about the mental health of their members.
Psychologists and police officials say a number of factors — such as increased scrutiny, mandatory overtime, perceived hostility and physical danger — contribute to the daily stress on officers.
“I have been in law enforcement 23 years myself. I can’t recall a time ever that it’s has been so stressful and difficult to be a law enforcement officer,” said Officer Sherri Martin of the Enfield, Connecticut, police department and chair of the national officer wellness committee of the Fraternal Order of Police.
Among the police officers who have ended their lives in recent weeks:
⦁ Montgomery County Police Officer Thomas Bomba, 38, requested backup Monday for a report of disorderly conduct at a parking garage in Silver Spring, Maryland. When officers arrived, they found Officer Bomba suffering from a gunshot wound. He died later at the MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
The chief medical examiner for the District of Columbia announced Tuesday that the 13-year veteran of the Montgomery County force died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
⦁ An off-duty sergeant for the New York City Police Department fatally shot himself in his home in the Fresh Meadows neighborhood of Queens on Tuesday. He was the 10th officer the department lost this year to suicide.
“We vow to keep fighting this fight, to do better on these and many other fronts, and to put a stop to this epidemic once and for all,” said NYPD Commissioner James O’Neil.
⦁ An off-duty Chicago police officer was found dead last month in a forest in an apparent suicide, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The newspaper said the officer’s death was the fourth suicide by a Chicago officer this year and the eighth since July 2018. Days later, a retired Chicago police officer fatally shot himself in his home, the Tribune reported.
‘A sense of hopelessness’
Thomas Coghlan is a retired NYPD police detective who served for 21 years on the force before becoming a clinical psychologist specializing in assessments and therapy for first responders. He identified four types of stressors that can affect a police officer’s mental health:
⦁ Operational: responding to traumatic incidents such a fatal wreck, homicide or domestic violence.
⦁ Occupational: such as mandatory overtime, scheduling or missing family time.
⦁ Organizational: an agency’s punitive policies against officers or treating them as liabilities rather than assets.
⦁ Situational: such as a divorce or an illness in the family.
Mr. Coghlan said a lack of reciprocity on the job can contribute to hopelessness, a “key contributing factor to suicidal thinking.”
“You may love the job, but the job will never love you, and that’s absolutely true,” he said.
Officers can become disillusioned by the job and how their department treats them, which can begin a downward turn toward hopelessness, he said.
As officers work in the department for years, they begin to realize how the agency treats them doesn’t improve, Mr. Coghlan said.
“If today is the best there is, and it will never get better — in fact it will always get worse — it can develop into a sense of hopelessness,” Mr. Coghlan said. “Hopelessness informs suicidal thinking.”
Terrence Cunningham, deputy executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, compared the stress that officers experience to carrying a heavy load without assistance.
“It’s like putting bricks in a backpack and at some point, the backpack gets too heavy and it needs help,” said Mr. Cunningham, a former police chief in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Helping police officers
The Fraternal Order of Police conducted a national study on the emotional health of 8,000 officers across the country. It found that 79% reported experiencing critical stress at some point during their career, which they defined as “a strong emotional reaction that overwhelms usually effective coping abilities.” Of that, 69% said it caused lingering emotional issues.
A fifth of the respondents said they use counseling through their agencies’ employee assistance program.
The survey found that a significant number use coping mechanisms like talking with friends and family, exercising, or picking up a hobby for distraction, but many resort to self-medication with alcohol or substances or doing nothing at all.
“When they are undiagnosed and untreated, and very frequently self-medicating, they represent a very high level of risk, and when they are treated represent a low level of risk,” Mr. Coghlan said.
Officer Martin of the FOP’s wellness committee noted that police officers’ schedules often don’t promote healthy habits. When officers work late-night shifts, for example, the only dining options available are often fast food.
She said officers monitor one another when someone on the force is unwell, but an officer’s mental health rarely poses a threat to the public.
Mr. Cunningham of the International Association of Chiefs of Police said “people are finally starting to realize we have got to knock down the stigma and change the entire culture. The whole profession has to be healthier.”
In Montgomery County, the police department “has a Crisis Response and Support Unit that provides peer support to both sworn and professional staff,” county council President Nancy Navarro’s office said in an email. “Stress counseling services are also offered to the police through the County’s Office of Human Resources to provide appropriate confidentiality.”
In New York, Commissioner O’Neill established a health and wellness task force, whose initiatives include health and wellness training for command-level officers and a peer support program.
Additionally, the FOP is developing a nationwide program to train officers to be peer support counselors, which survey respondents said is the most helpful. It also is creating a directory of counseling providers who are familiar with the work of first responders.
Officer Martin said some legislatures have passed measures to allow for post-traumatic stress disorder to be included in workers’ compensation policies.
She said some departments require every officer to have a yearly check-in with a mental health professional, which reduces the stigma and helps officers build trust with counselors.
Mr. Coghlan said that in many cases, an agency’s discipline policy mimics its mental health policy, so they revisit how they treat people who seek help.
“I believe you need to address the issue of stigma and why officers are so resistant to voluntarily seeking treatment,” Mr. Coghlan said.