The Badge of Life Organization recently released their preliminary 2009 police suicide statistics. There were 143 police suicides in 2009, a slight increase from 2008 police suicides of 141. In 2009 there were 127 in the line of duty deaths. Officer suicide rates are at least double of the general population. Any law enforcement suicide is one too many. World Suicide Prevention Day is observed on September 10 each year to promote worldwide action to prevent suicides. Various events and activities are held during this occasion to raise awareness that suicide is a major preventable cause of premature death.
The 2009 Badge of Life police suicide study provided additional demographic information:
- Ages 40-44 are at highest risk of suicide, representing 27% of all suicides.
- Service time at highest risk was twenty years plus.
- Officers with less than ten years on the job had a suicide rate of 17%.
- 64% of suicides were a surprise.
There is no easy or full proof way to identify which officers are most at risk for taking their own lives. Every officer has his or her breaking point. The stresses of daily life, coupled with stresses from tragic/critical events, can push a police officer to end his/her life. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress and depression before an officer reaches that breaking point is essential.
The top predictors for suicide for anyone are: a diagnostic mental disorder, alcohol or substance use, loss of social or family support, and the availability and access to a firearm. 90% of officers commit suicide using a gun. Additionally, about 90% of the time, an officer is drinking heavily when he/she kills himself/herself. Statistically, most officers that commit suicide are white males, working patrol and are entering middle-age. They have experienced a recent loss, real or perceived. Most have no record of misconduct. Most shoot themselves while off duty.
The foremost researcher in stress in the world, Hans Selye, said that police work is the most stressful occupation. Officers witness life's most horrible scenes. Nothing can possibly prepare a police officer for what he or she might encounter on the job. They are first on scene when a child dies, a woman is raped, a senseless homicide, a teenager's suicide, a car ablaze with victims trapped, drug overdoses, and domestic violence calls. These calls have an effect on even the most seasoned officers. The calls add up. The job lacks balance. Most other professions experience more of a blend of the good with the bad, not so for an officer; it is frequently one heart wrenching call after another. Additionally, an officer's life is in danger every day, they can never let their guard down; never turn off the adrenaline pump. While officers generally operate well under stress, too much stress may have disastrous outcomes.
Officers often work 10-12 hour shifts, at hours most people could not conceive of. There is often disruption in their lives due to rotating shifts. Overtime is often mandatory, and a call to court for testimony can further disrupt an officer's sleep routine and requirements. Meals are often a luxury due to the demands of the beat. Family and other personal relationships are forced to the back seat. They want to protect their families from the horrors they have to deal with routinely, refusing to discuss their work with significant others. Family members may feel left out, confused, neglected. Resentments often build.
Other sources of officer stress are related to the ever present scrutiny by the command cadre as well as criticism from the public and media. There is an overwhelming sense of disappointment when an officer is not chosen for a promotion he/she felt was due. Couple this with frustration from the criminal justice system, despite the officer's best efforts, the bad guys get off. Cliques within a department can make an officer feel ostracized. Officers have an increased risk of contracting serious diseases, also adding to their stress. Emphasis on political correctness and cultural diversity also can create additional stress for any officer.