Confronting Enemies Within: PTSD, Suicide

Exposure to trauma in a high-stress, high-risk profession like law enforcement puts first responders at elevated risk of PTSD and the possibility of suicide. But the know-how and the means are available to help reduce the risk.

By Susan DeGrane

The daily routine of police work exposes officers to increased likelihood of PTSD and suicide — but through awareness and recognition of symptoms, first responders can minimize the risk.
The daily routine of police work exposes officers to increased likelihood of PTSD and suicide — but through awareness and recognition of symptoms, first responders can minimize the risk.

The Chicago Police Department holds two graduation ceremonies for newly minted officers. One takes place at Chicago’s Navy Pier ballroom with plenty of fanfare as the mayor and other dignitaries congratulate new officers, but the other — the star ceremony — is just for immediate family.

The star ceremony takes place in the Chicago Police Academy gymnasium. Spouses or close family members come forward, one at a time, to pin new badges on the officers’ uniforms. After department chaplains offer blessings, the officers leave the gymnasium to load up their service weapons at the onsite gun range.

“This gives us a chance to talk to families without the officers being there,” says Fr. Dan Brandt, a Chicago Archdiocesan priest and director of the Chicago Police Chaplains Ministry, which serves the 12,000-member Chicago Police Department, their families and 5,000 retired officers. “For the next 15 minutes, well, it’s kind of a downer talk, to be honest. We tell the officers’ significant others about all the bad stuff they can expect.”

The litany includes: suicide; post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); alcoholism; depression; the reality of shift work — that officers may have to sleep all day due to working all night; that officers frequently will miss Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas, and their kids’ dance recitals; that the family’s friendship circle may change — non-police friends may drift away because officers often form close bonds with officers they come to rely on in life-or-death situations. And, of course, there’s the uncertainty of whether or not the officer will be hurt or killed in the line of duty.

While police work is more hazardous than most other professions, there’s a reason why suicide tops the list of bad stuff for loved ones to expect.

“Most Chicago police officers see more awful things in a single shift than most people see in a lifetime — robberies, murders, shots fired,” says Brandt, who insists on driving and riding shotgun in a squad car with a Chicago police officer on a weekly basis through Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods during hours of peak gang activity. “It can be difficult for anyone to process.” Brandt also provides on-the-scene support to officers during various traumatic events, including hostage situations.

Pullquoteimage-web“Most Chicago police officers see more awful things in a single shift than most people see in a lifetime.”
— Fr. Dan Brandt, Archdiocesan priest and director of
Chicago Police Chaplains Ministry

In 2014, 118 police officers in the United States were killed in the line of duty, according to Officer Down Memorial Home Page. But far more officers likely took their own lives.

“A police officer is twice as likely to commit suicide as be killed in the line of duty,” suggests Nancy Zarse, Ph.D., a full professor in the Forensic Department at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and Infragard Academia sector chief. Numerous sources, including the U.S. Department of Justice, indicate this.

Accurate and recent suicide numbers for law enforcement remain elusive for various reasons, however. Many law enforcement agencies are still reluctant to draw a connection between job-related stress and suicide, so many suicides go unrecognized as related to police work, says Zarse, a licensed clinical psychologist.

Even so, the problem of suicide among law enforcement officers was apparent long before September of 1999, when the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) hosted a conference exploring the issue at the FBI Academy, Quantico, Va. As a result of this coming together of law enforcement officers, psychologists, attorneys, chaplains and employee-assistance professionals, the FBI’s BSU produced a reference book that remains accessible on the U.S. Department of Justice website and continues to serve as a resource for law enforcement agencies throughout the country.

While many departments, large and small, have taken pains to address the issue of suicide among officers, a major stumbling block to prevention has been that there is a tendency of police to shy away from recognizing emotional problems or mental illness. “It’s pretty much a culture of denial,” Zarse says.

A tendency toward stoicism or stonewalling may relate to the fact that the field of law enforcement remains male-dominated, she adds.

The predominant demographic — white males between the ages of 24 and 65 — also skews totals for the group toward a greater propensity for suicide than the overall population.

In examining statistics published in the FBI’s report, researchers Michael G. Aamodt and Nicole A. Stalnaker asserted that the suicide rate for law enforcement officers was 18.1 per 100,000, as opposed to 11.4 in 100,000 among the general population, and that this could be attributed to the predominantly male demographic. They also indicated that the law enforcement group, compared with the same age and gender demographic from the general population, actually had a slightly lower overall suicide rate.

But regardless of whether the suicide rate for law enforcement officers relates to demographics or hazards of the profession, suicide prevention programs seem to be more readily accepted by police departments.

In January, the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation sponsored an annual suicide awareness and prevention seminar for law enforcement, underwritten by Motorola and co-hosted by McDonald’s, Hyatt Lodge of Oak Brook, and the Oak Brook Police Department. For several years, the one-day event has attracted police brass from Chicago, suburban, county and Illinois state law departments, according to Brandt.

Among this year’s featured speakers urging officers not to become an unfortunate statistic was Kevin Gilmartin, author of “The Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families.”

Gilmartin’s book isn’t new and it isn’t the only one to explore the connection between police work and PTSD. Other popular titles include “Cop Shock” by Allen R. Kates, and “I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know” by Ellen Kirschman, Ph.D.

So awareness has been spreading. But whether or not support is delivered by a trained psychologist through a department’s employee assistance program can depend on many factors, says Zarse, adding that smaller departments may be at a disadvantage in terms of hiring staff psychologists. In some cases they’ve begun to pool resources with other agencies.

One positive trend among departments is the raising of awareness that it’s OK to ask for help, says Zarse, a frequent presenter at law enforcement education workshops around the country. These same departments also seem to realize that educating officers about PTSD and precipitating factors for suicide is important.

“With greater exposure to trauma, the greater the chances of PTSD,” says Zarse. “But

just because you are exposed to trauma doesn’t mean you’re going to develop PTSD. A lot depends on your coping strategies. If you’re turning to alcohol and risky behavior, there’s a good chance you’re setting yourself up for PTSD. PTSD left unchecked can lead to suicide, especially when alcohol factors in, lowering inhibitions.”

Arming officers with more positive coping strategies is thought to help. “It’s no longer just a matter of R & R to set things right and recharge,” says Zarse, who suggests it’s more a matter of six Rs touted at recent law enforcement training workshop in Central Florida: 1) Responsibility 2) Reflection 3) Relaxation 4) Relationship 5) Recreation and 6) Refueling.

“The first R, responsibility to self, is a big part of maintaining sound mental health,” Zarse says. “The notion of responsibility is, you’re in control of your own actions regardless of what others may be doing. The training encourages officers to examine their reactions to various situations by asking themselves, if this happens, how do I react? Do I tend to drink? Do I get on a motorcycle and drive recklessly at high speeds? The idea is that you take care of yourself, so you can be there for other people.”

Positive coping strategies, which Zarse calls “buffers,” include: rest; recreation;

enjoyable hobbies; engagement in meaningful relationships; and an active spiritual life, whether participating in organized religion or just spending time in nature.

With enough support from family and friends, with enough positive activities, some officers don’t develop PTSD and they may not need the assistance of a professional psychologist, but others do, says Zarse.

She adds that it’s very important for officers to do the following:

  • Recognize the warning signs of PTSD — depression, anger, insomnia, risky behaviors, broken relationships or isolation.
  • Do not ignore suicidal thoughts.
  • Ask for help.

Both Zarse and Brandt point out that beyond other first responders who must be willing to put themselves in harm’s way to save and protect others, law enforcement officers must bear another formidable stressor — the responsibility of using deadly force.

“Without clarity about this, officers cannot be as effective,” says Brandt, who teaches a class at the Chicago Police Academy on the spiritual and ethical implications of the use of deadly force. “Much of the officer’s training is tactical, but my work is to bring understanding that when they draw their weapons to protect themselves or someone else, this is not murder.”

According to Brandt, those who resort to deadly force pay a high price. “Many are haunted by those they’ve injured or killed, regardless of the fact that they had no other choice,” he says.

The Chicago Police Department supports officers in the wake of traumatic events by providing debriefings, additional training, participation in group discussions and counseling, Brandt says.

Citing an example of an officer who returned fire after being wounded in the shoulder, Brandt says, “He did everything right. The man the officer shot had intended to kill him. He had numerous offenses and had served time in prison. He was estranged from his family. And yet, the family that hadn’t spoken to the guy in years suddenly hired an attorney and wanted to destroy the officer’s life. Letters kept coming in the mailbox. Officers need someone to stand by them when those letters arrive.”end_icon